What Hollande must do next

The French Socialist must clarify his mission before the second round.

I haven't been following the French election with microscopic care - but it is important for the future of Europe and the future of the left.

With the first round results now in, it looks significant for politics too.

My immediate reaction to the results - having watched clips from what I thought was a rather downbeat if calculating Nicolas Sarkozy, a careful François Hollande and a heady Marine Le Pen - is that the anger of the voters has not been pacified or persuaded by the answers of the main parties, and so they have turned to hard right and left.  The answers of the mainstream parties work for just over a quarter of voters each (and the French deserve to be congratulated for voting in larger numbers than us), but they are too timid, technocratic or unconvincing for the rest.

That is a pretty serious state of affairs.

Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon are not "two ends of the spectrum" since the former is a proto Fascist and the latter a strong redistributionist but not an extremist.  However, it is very striking that their combined vote share is greater than either Hollande or Sarkozy.  I am not sure that has happened before. It sets the stage for a real debate in the country about its future.

For President Sarkozy, the message seems to be "you've had your fun, the real election starts now". I would guess his team have war-gamed the next final ten days very carefully - starting with the call for three debates in his election-night speech. For Hollande, the danger is that he looks for tactical feints and compromises, when I think he would be far better off meeting Sarkozy head on. I was a little surprised that Hollande seemed to have no equivalent announcement or call to the Sarkozy debates proposal. The truth is that Sarkozy promised reform in 2007, but has run out of steam. It is obvious that he will try and paint Hollande as an ingenue or apparatchik, not ready for the "3am call".  Hollande needs to be able to come back and ask why if experience is such a great thing, Sarkozy has achieved less in each successive year in office.

Answers are always more detailed than anger - but that is because they are actually going to be implemented.  The trouble is that the detail can obscure the anger or mission that is inspiring the answers in the first place.  I would like to see Hollande clarify that mission in the next ten days. His front-runner status is built on the unpopularity of President Sarkozy personally, but that is not enough.

He needs his programme to provide answers.

So when Sarkozy says that France faces big questions I think Hollande needs to say yes.  That applies on public finance, where there hasn't been a French budget surplus for forty years; on economics, where it needs to raise its productivity; and on social policy, where it needs to infuse the French dream with some meaning.  Meanwhile on Europe the 'Merkozy' groupthink on austerity is a disaster, but Hollande cannot afford to ignore deep scepticism among voters and markets about Europe's ability to get to grips with the groaning imbalances within the Eurozone.

Hollande was chosen over his rivals for the Socialist nomination because he was a pragmatic centrist.  He has not disappointed a party starved of a Presidential election win for 24 years.  The short term danger for him is that he spooks the markets and then the voters.

But the medium term danger is that he colludes in an economic strategy that breaks the back of European politics.

Hollande is right to emphasise growth. Europe needs some bold strokes if it is to reverse declining confidence in its ability to turn things round.  That is partly about showing that the commitments to stand behind Euro membership are real.  But it is also about fiscal policy in creditor countries - the Dutch government's collapse this week shows the problems there.  And it must get into the issues of innovation, productivity and investment that are key to Europe's future.

Technocrats like Mario Monti in Italy and worried right of centre leaders like Mariano Rajoy in Spain will not want to start a fight with German orthodoxy, but they will join in if the French start the debate going. They know that there needs to be a change of course.  They just don't have the power to bring it about.

In the end economics may be global but politics is local, and Hollande speaks to French character and history in a way that is, well, very French. I hope he makes it.

David Miliband is the MP for South Shields. He was environment secretary (2006-2007) and foreign secretary (2007-2010)

 

Francois Hollande is seen at the window of the city town hall during the first round of the 2012 French Presidential election on April 22, 2012 in Tulle, central France Photograph: Getty Images.

David Miliband is the  President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee
He was foreign secretary from 2007 until 2010 and MP for South Shields from 2001 until this year. 

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage