How everything became François Hollande’s fault

So much blame is heaped on Hollande that it is hard not to feel sorry for the amiable back-room party manager who, his friends say, still cannot believe his good fortune in landing the presidency last year.

Forecasts of insurrection are so recurrent in France that it is easy to be blasé about the latest outbreak. Once or twice a decade, unhappiness with the regime boils up and the country seems on the brink of eruption. Presidents Mitterrand, Chirac and Sarkozy all faced potential social convulsions arising from their inability to solve la crise. The expression applies not to a passing phase, but to the sense of economic doom that has haunted France since the 1973 oil-price shock. The upheavals never came and all three presidents defied predictions of collapse and saw out their terms. Now, only 18 months since he was elected, it is the turn of the hapless François Hollande and this time the ingredients of discontent seem so abundant that many are discerning the perfect storm.

Farmers, businessmen and workers in Brittany have taken to wearing symbolic red bonnets and joined in the revolt against Hollande’s blizzard of new or raised taxes. With France in a foul mood, protests are erupting in many quarters, with bonnets of many colours. Ambulance owners and riding schools have protested, both saying they will go out of business following a big jump in their rates of VAT. Farmers have planned a blockade of Paris for 21 November.

I’ve just heard a lurid analysis from one of the beneficiaries of the discontent – Marine Le Pen. The leader of the once-reviled Front National was on good form when I met her at the party HQ in Nanterre. Marine may have “de-demonised” the old xenophobic party founded by her father, Jean-Marie, but she retains his fondness for apocalyptic rhetoric. “France is going to be put to the fire and sword. I think we are in a period of revolt,” she told me.

The popular leading woman of French politics blames the entire political establishment for bringing France to its knees, while the establishment in turn holds her responsible for a rise of racism in public discourse. But just about everyone outside the Parti Socialiste would agree with her diagnosis: “The French have the feeling that François Hollande doesn’t have a clue where he is going. That’s what is stirring the anxiety.”

So much blame is heaped on Hollande that it is hard not to feel sorry for the amiable back-room party manager who, his friends say, still cannot believe his good fortune in landing the presidency last year. He is held responsible for just about everything that reflects the rancid mood in the country. If France’s once-glorious football team seems destined to crash out of the World Cup, c’est la faute à Hollande. If a lone gunman stalks Parisians, it is a symptom of his morbid reign.

France always falls out of love with its elected monarchs, but le désamour with Hollande, now the most unpopular president since polling began in 1958, has been spectacularly swift. It springs from his bumbling leadership, addiction to taxes and failure to halt unemployment and economic decline.

More broadly, Hollande and Jean-Marc Ayrault, his emollient prime minister, are paying the price for France’s unhappiness with the modern world. While big French firms have prospered in the globalised economy, successive presidents, including the supposedly reformist Nicolas Sarkozy, have shielded their people from the new mentality of competition. The enemy remains le libéralisme anglo-saxon, the alien creed deemed to be deployed against France by everyone from the Chinese to the European Commission.

Hollande has belatedly explained that France’s decline stems from a decade-long slide in competitiveness, but there is only so far he can go without touching left-wing taboos and betraying his promises to shore up the Gallic social model. In private, senior ministers accept that public spending has to be slashed from 56 per cent of GDP and that labour laws must be loosened, but they fear the revolt such actions could trigger.

Hollande is trying to weather the ridicule being showered on his presidency. He is making the most of the muscle that France has wielded in the Middle East, over Iran in particular, and in his successful military venture against Islamists in the Sahel. Yet some figures in his own entourage worry that he has failed to grasp the mood of catastrophisme and that muddling through to better times may not work.

In Hollande’s favour, one should remember that, unlike David Cameron or Angela Merkel, he is not a mere government leader, who can be disowned by parliament or rattled into calling elections. He holds the near-absolute powers of a president of the Fifth Republic, with a subservient parliament that only he could dissolve. And Hollande has lately been reminding nervous visitors of a favourite saying of his late mentor François Mitterrand: “Il faut laisser du temps au temps” – you have to give time time to do its work.

Charles Bremner is the Europe editor of the Times

Can everything really be Hollande's fault? Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, iBroken

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle