After the Cahuzac scandal, the Hollande presidency is in tatters

France's Socialist president has failed to deliver - and in record time.

Barely ten months after his election, François Hollande is a lame duck President. He is even more unpopular than Nicolas Sarkozy was at the same stage of the presidency. The French people elected him in May 2012 because they had had enough with Sarkozy’s right-wing politics which deeply divided the nation. They wanted change. Hollande’s austerity policies and his alignment on Angela Merkel’s positions in Europe have dramatically failed to make a difference so far.The majority of the population even feels that there is a troubling continuity with Sarkozysm on major policy areas such as employment, pensions, benefits, wages, not to mention the neo-colonial war waged by French troops in Mali.

Now, the Hollande presidency is in tatters. A state scandal is threatening to engulf Hollande and the Socialist government. The person responsible for the crisis is Jérôme Cahuzac, who was the Budget Minister until two weeks ago. For the past few months, Cahuzac had been accused of having used a secret Swiss bank account to avoid paying taxes in France. Those allegations were made by Mediapart, an investigative website run by Edwy Plenel, a former editor-in-chief for Le Monde newspaper. The accusations were repeatedly denied by Cahuzac before the President, the Prime Minister,the members of parliament and various media. On 2 April, Cahuzac suddenly admitted to a judge that he hid €600,000 (£510,000) offshore for over twenty years. He was immediately placed under formal investigation for laundering the proceeds of tax fraud by French justice. Hollande appeared on national television the next day and said that Cahuzac’s actions were an "unforgivable moral error".

This dramatic development could not have happened at a worst time for a beleaguered President, nor could the trouble have come from one of the most sensitive departments in government. Indeed, as Budget Minister, Cahuzac was the man in charge of fighting tax evasion. He was also responsible for leading a crusade against tax heavens on behalf of the French State. He had the task of streamlining the budget and running the government’s crackdown on rich people who would be made to pay more taxes. When two weeks ago Cahuzac resigned, Hollande applauded his decision to "better defend his honour". For Hollande and Jean-Marc Ayrault – Hollande’s Prime Minister – it is a no-win situation. If they now acknowledge that they had misgivings about Cahuzac’s probity, they would be held responsible. Thus, they can only claim that they knew nothing about the scandal. In the best case scenario, the executive comes across as weak and indecisive.

Hollande, Ayrault and Socialist members of parliament have tried hard to downplay the whole Cahuzac episode. They argue that it is a personal betrayal and the story only poses a "moral issue". In truth, the Cahuzac scandal has only marginally to do with the dishonesty of a man. It is much more than the sad personification of the "bastard" as defined by Jean-Paul Sartre. No, the Cahuzac swindle also exposes political manipulations and lies at the heart of the Hollande presidency. It truly is a state scandal which creates a political crisis whose political ramifications will be multiple and hard to predict.

Who is Jérôme Cahuzac? This 60 year-old man was a cardiologist who became a plastic surgeon specialising in hair transplants. In this new profession, the disgraced minister amassed a large personal fortune. Cahuzac comes from the self-professed neoliberal/Blairite wing of the Socialist Party. In a recent television debate with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the Left Front, he haughtily conceded that never in his thirty-year long career in the Socialist Party, he had "believed in class struggle". When Ayrault appointed him to the government, several party officials warned the Prime Minister that this was a hazardous decision. Arrogant and briskwith his colleagues, Cahuzac belongs to a breed of "Socialists" that ignores virtually everything of the travails of the electorate who brought Hollande to power last year. What is more, Cahuzac was in government the zealous promoter of the harshest austerity policies that France has ever experienced since the end of the Second World War. Here is a man who not only lectured the public about fraud evasion while being a fraudster himself, but who was also responsible for implementing and monitoring unfair and pointless economic policies – such as his target of reducing France’s public deficit to 3 per cent - which inflicted unnecessary suffering on the worst off in society.

Until the New York sex scandal which put an end to his political career, Cahuzac was a "Strausskahnian", i.e. a close and devoted political ally of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The two "Socialists" shared the same lavish and insouciant lifestyle and the same taste for laissez-faire economics. Both men were friendly with the rich and powerful and bothentertained dubious relationships in the political world. Mediapart has revealed that Philippe Péninque was the person who discretely opened Cahuzac’s bank account in Switzerland in 1992. Péninque used to be a member of Groupe Union Défense (GUD), a violent student union on the extreme right. He is currently a close friend and confident of Marine Le Pen.

Hollande’s responsibility is here clearly engaged as it should have been clear from the start that Cahuzac’s appointment was politically hazardous. A cabinet minister recently revealed that Cahuzac was responsible for messing up the handling of the tax bill on very high earners - the "75 per cent tax" on people earning over €1 million. Warned that some provisions in the bill might be censored by the Constitutional Council, Cahuzac opted to go ahead with it. The bill indeed ended up being censored by the French Supreme Court. Only days ago, Cahuzac was still presented in Socialist circles as the paragon of "good governance" and as a ‘competent and brilliant minister’. How was it possible to appoint such a man to a Socialist cabinet in the first place?

One may put the question to Pierre Moscovici, the Minister of Finance. After Cahuzac’s exit, Moscovici is the last "Strausskahnian" left in government. One of the rare Blair admirers in France, Moscovici now stands accused by Mediapart of having used the State apparatus to try to whitewash his political friend. Weeks ago, Moscovici declared that he had inquired to the Swiss banking institutions about Cahuzac’s secret account and that he was satisfied that no such account existed.

The Cahuzac scandal is well and truly essentially a political scandal. This episode involves a caste of politicians who have completely let down the people who elected them. Some thought that they were untouchable. After ten months in office, this Socialist government has already turned its back on the needs and aspirations of the working people.

Philippe Marlière is professor of French politics at University College London. He tweets @PhMarliere

The French president François Hollande (2nd left), followed by prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and the former budget minister Jerome Cahuzac. (Photo: Getty.)
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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt