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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.