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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Austria’s far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer concedes defeat

The vote was seen as a test of how other populist, anti-establishment candidates might perform in elections across Europe next year.

 

In an unexpected early result, Austria’s far-right party has conceded defeat in the country’s presidential election. The loss of the Freedom Party’s candidate Norbet Hofer to the liberal, Green Party-backed independent Alexander Van der Bellen, will be seen as a setback for the populist, Eurosceptic cause across Europe.

The official result of this bitterly fought election is unlikely to be confirmed before Monday, but the poll projections show a definitive victory for Van der Bellen. The projections had put Van der Bellen on 53.6% ahead of Hofer on 46.4%.

Hofer acknowledged his loss shortly after voting closed and congratulated his opponent. “I am infinitely sad that it didn't work out, I would have liked to watch over our Austria,” he wrote in a post on his Facebook page.

Hofer was aiming to become the first far-right leader in the European Union. Opinion polls in the run-up to today’s vote suggested the candidates were neck and neck.

His victory would have emboldened other far-right movements across Europe, such as Marine Le’s Pen’s Front National, further eroding the European liberal consensus. It would have been a shock of a similar scale to the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential race.

The election was originally won by Van der Bellen back in May, but Austria’s supreme court demanded a re-run after voting irregularities emerged during the count. Van der Bellen now looks set to increase his victory of 31,000 votes by a factor of ten.

Hofer, one of the deputy presidents in Austria’s parliament, campaigned for the presidency on an anti-immigration platform. He attacked the government over its decision to allow 90,000 refugees and migrants to enter the country last year.

He had also appeared to suggest Austria could become the next nation to follow Britain out of the EU, with a referendum on its membership of the bloc. He later ruled that out, but stated that he would oppose Turkey’s bid for membership and further centralisation.

While the post of president is largely ceremonial, the vote had heightened significance as an indication of how well other populist candidates might perform in the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections across France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Serena Kutchinsky is the digital editor of the New Statesman.