French foreign policy: so far, François, So good

On foreign policy, the French president is proving skilful and radical.

Given France’s importance as a world power, a member of the UN Security Council, one of the world’s largest economies, a nuclear power, and a driver of the EU project, French foreign policy under President Hollande is of fundamental importance to all of us.

Ironically no one mentioned foreign policy in six months of presidential campaigning. And Hollande is without a nano-second of government practice, let along international experience. Unnervingly, therefore, the answer to the question "Whither France in the world?" is quite simply "We don’t know, because no one has told us".

Hollande arrived at the Elysee Palace this month without much of a foreign policy narrative at all. And yet he was immediately confronted with numerous top-level international meetings of unprecedented intensity. On the day of his inauguration Hollande flew to Berlin to discuss the contentious issues of the Fiscal Treaty with its arch-backer Angela Merkel. After that it was to the United States for his first meeting with President Obama. Hollande had uncomfortable news – France would be pulling its troops out of Afghanistan. Then it was on to summits with the G8, NATO, G20 ones, and last but by no means least, the EU.

Even an experienced diplomat like Kissinger would have found this taxing. Hollande was faced with challenges of breathtaking complexity for a man whose recent overseas experience amounted to little more than put-putting around Greek islands on his motor scooter. However, just two weeks in and he has been doing rather well. We may be facing an unusual phenomenon in French politics: some politicians, through a difficult to analyse combination of virtù and fortuna, are lucky.

When, at the start of his presidential campaign, Hollande said he wanted to renegotiate the Eurozone Fiscal Treaty people laughed. It sounded as if Hollande was just making it up, and that he would pay the price with stock market chaos and Merkel’s ire. But fortuna has been good to him. It soon became clear that he was not alone in wanting more emphasis on growth and less on austerity. Italy piped up, as did Greece, and when Hollande met Obama , even he told him the US wanted stimulus growth in Europe. Even Germany may be changing its tune. With the German CDU getting a drubbing in the May North-Rhine Westphalia elections, and Merkel facing further elections in 2013, its vice-like grip on austerity no longer seems both politically as well as economically unquestionable. Hollande increasingly looks not just competent in capitals across Europe and North America, but also a man possessed with forethought.

Likewise, to tell the leader of the free world that to distinguish himself from his main rival in the election campaign he had to promise French troops would be withdrawn early from Afghanistan is not an easy thing to raise during your first meeting. But once again, luckily for Hollande "Home for Christmas" is logistically near impossible. 3,500 troops, 900 vehicles and 1400 containers cannot be removed from Afghanistan before December. Hollande will withdraw the troops, but in a way that will not trigger the fury of the Americans, while dismaying his domestic audience.

So far, François, so good. It won’t always be like this though. Cuts in spending – in defence especially – are looming, as are a mountain of other problems. And they are truly Himalayan: the ongoing Arab Spring, Syria, Iran, Sub-Saharan Africa. But many of these states are happy with a Hollande presidency. In his desperate attempts to beat off the challenge from the far right, Sarkozy’s campaign angered many of these African States, with its undertones of colonialism and even – intended or not – racism. And France’s former colonies really are ready for a new kind of relationship with the Motherland, who has sometimes been anything but maternal.

But it is not just new relationships with foreign powers that Hollande must forge. He needs quickly to develop a new foreign policy rhetoric and narrative that will define his presidency. Since de Gaulle, a certain logic has driven French foreign policy and the French Socialist Party’s overall foreign policy has not been markedly dissimilar from the mainstream right’s. That is a real shame, for new ideas and approaches from the intelligent, sophisticated, and politically thoughtful French would be so welcome in the world today, given the challenges the world faces.

For today at least, Hollande is one of the luckiest politicians in the history of the Fifth Republic. It remains to be seen: he may turn out to be one of the most skilful, and in foreign policy at least, the most radical.

John Gaffney is the co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe

French President François Hollande meets with Barack Obama following their bilateral meeting in the Oval Office at the White House. Photograph: Getty Images.

John Gaffney is the co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe, specialising in French politics and the discourse of leadership.

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Unconvinced by Ken Loach’s benefits story? That says more about Britain than the film does

The director has clashed with a film critic about his representation of the welfare state in I, Daniel Blake.

I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s new film, has kicked off a row between the director and The Sunday Times’ film critic, Camilla Long.

Published on Sunday, the review – which called the film a “povvo safari for middle-class do-gooders” – has led to Loach and some audience members rowing with Long online.

Long also describes the film – which is an unforgiving drama about the cruelty of welfare bureaucracy – as “misery porn for smug Londoners”.

Her contention is that it is “condescending” and “patronising” to benefits claimants, partly because it will mainly be seen by affluent audiences, rather than “the lowest part of society” – so acts as a vehicle for middle-class guilt rather than an authentic reflection of people’s lives.

I’ve seen the film, and there are parts that jar. A reference to the Bedroom Tax feels shoe-horned in, as if screenwriter Paul Laverty remembered last-minute to tick that box on his welfare scandal checklist. And an onlooker outside the Jobcentre’s rant about the Bullingdon Club, Etonians and Iain Duncan Smith also feels forced. (But to me, these parts only stood out because the rest of the script is convincing – often punishingly so.)

A critic is free to tear into a film they didn’t enjoy. But the problem with Long’s review is the problem with the way Britain in general looks at the benefits system: disbelief.

For example, Long calls it “a maddening computer error” and “a mysterious glitch” that Daniel Blake – a 59-year-old carpenter who has been signed off from work by his doctor after a heart attack – is denied his disability benefit.

Actually it’s because he’s been found “fit to work” after an agonising tick-box phone assessment by an anonymous adviser, who is neither a nurse nor a doctor. This is a notorious problem with work capability assessments under a welfare system constantly undergoing cuts and shake-ups by successive governments.

Both the Personal Independence Payment (which replaced the Disability Living Allowance in 2013 under the coalition) and Employment and Support Allowance (which replaced the Incapacity Benefit in 2007 under New Labour) have seen backlogs and delays in providing financial support to claimants, and work capability tests have repeatedly been under fire for being intrusive, inappropriate, or just wrong. Funding for those in the “work-related activity group” who claim ESA – in which you work if you are deemed able to during continual interviews with an adviser – also suffered a 30 per cent cut in last year’s budget.

Also, when people claiming ESA believe they have wrongly been found “fit for work” and appeal – as Blake does in the film – more than half of decisions are overturned when they reach a tribunal.

It’s a system that puts cost-cutting above people’s welfare; Jobcentre staff are even monitored individually in terms of how many sanctions they impose (Blake’s friend Katie is sanctioned in the film), making them feel as if they are working to targets.

The situation for disabled, sick or broke people claiming welfare is unbelievable in this country, which is perhaps why it’s so difficult for us – or for some watching Loach’s portrayal of the cruel system – to believe it at all. At best, it’s because we would prefer to close our eyes to a system that we hope we never have to grapple with. At worst, it’s because we don’t believe people when they say they cannot work, and demonise them as “shirkers” or “scroungers”.

By all means question Loach’s cinematic devices, but don’t question the point of telling the story at all – and the story itself. After all, it’s the very inability of people who rely on the state to have their voices heard that means they are always hit the hardest.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.