Can a Socialist government committed to austerity measures still be called Socialist? This is one of the questions facing the French Left following President Francois Hollande’s recent decision to disband the government to expel voices critical of his new economic direction. The dissolution – the second in six months – has been described as a purge of dissident voices, with the replacement of, among others, the now former economic minister Arnaud Montebourg, an avowedly anti-austerity figure who takes a Krugman-esque line, by business-friendly former Rothschild banker Emmanuel Macron, who controversially questioned France’s sacrosanct 35 hour working week. Montebourg recently publicly blamed Hollande for choking the economy with spending cuts and has become the symbol for a movement of Leftist rebels, “les Frondeurs”, who argue that France should not be “aligning itself with the obsessions of the German right“.
Montebourg’s replacement is a confirmation that the government’s direction on economic matters would not be open to question. The dissolution comes after two previous reshuffles, the previous of which saw the appointment of Manuel Valls as Prime Minister in March, a move which was widely seen as an attempt to resituate the PS in the political centre, given Valls’ commitment to cutting public spending and reaching out to the business sector. The new cabinet reflects Hollande’s commitment to Valls’ vision and willingness to sacrifice the left of his party, for whom a central sticking point has been diverging visions on how to revive France’s flailing economy, with Hollande’s camp advocating cutting, against those who favour more borrowing.
The dissolution reflects the increasing pressure on Hollande to turn around a dire economic outlook. Despite two years in power, the government has failed to reverse growing unemployment and growth this year has been downgraded to 0.5 per cent. Hollande’s shifting strategy now involves integrating voices more conciliatory towards his centrist line, best exemplified by his new chief of staff, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, a former minister under center-right former President Nicolas Sarkozy.
President Hollande began his presidency with the strongest mandate for any left-wing government for 30 years, including a Socialist majority in the National Assembly. But his political wavering combined with personal scandals and his decision to dissolve the government three times, have left the public sceptical as to his abilities at a time where public confidence is at an all-time low. Polls indicate public approval ratings of just 17 per cent, and Hollande is now the bearer of the unenviable title of most unpopular president since polling records began. Whereas his Socialist predecessors all left their mark in the form of a significant social reforms (income support under Mitterrand, the 35 hour working week under Jospin, etc), it remains unclear what social contribution will mark Hollande’s legacy.
The same president who rode the anti-austerity wave to power and terrified the City with comments like “the finance sector is my enemy“ has been seen to be increasingly toeing the German line. Despite his promise to get tough with the finance sector, the appointment of a former Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist as new economic adviser says otherwise and the recent reshuffle has been seen as the replacement of Left-wing socialists with finance sector aficionados. For many within the party, this represents a betrayal of the very mandate Hollande had been elected to carry out.
Over the last week at the Socialist summer convention in La Rochelle, Prime Minister Valls has sought to portray himself as the purveyor of “Leftist realism” in the face of those accusing him and the government of kowtowing to austerity measures, repeating that the government “doesn’t practise austerity“ despite plans for further public spending cuts and tax breaks for businesses. But the balancing act which sees Hollande simultaneously try to appease the EU call for budget restraint while maintaining the support of the left wing of his party, has inevitably left him looking weak and ineffective. Even among Socialists, only 58 per cent have confidence in the government’s plan.
And despite a strong mandate, the Socialists have been unable to truly implement policies which reflect Leftist principles, instead, they’ve been restricted in that implementation by EU directives and arguably forced to rethink the very nature of Leftist economic policy. If Leftist politics is about rhetoric and not substance, given that the substance is decided elsewhere, the result can only ultimately be disillusionment with mainstream politics. This leaves “Flanby”, as President Hollande has been nicknamed, looking very wobbly, but it also plays into the nationalistic rhetoric of the FN, which rails against EU intrusions. Ultimately, a divided and incoherent Left leaves the way open for Marine Le Pen to target those workers traditionally more likely to lean Left. This is all the more worrying when one considers that a recent poll put her at the top of the next presidential race, and in light of the erosion of support for the radical Left party, where the charismatic Jean-Luc Mélenchon has recently stepped down.
The dilemma was succinctly summarised by Montebourg in an interview with Le Monde, in which he stated: “If we align ourselves with the most extreme orthodoxy of the German right, this will mean French people’s votes have no legitimacy and alternatives do not count.” The danger of further disillusionment with the main parties is the inevitable outcome.
For the French Left, there seems to be two competing visions. Either support a re-vamping of the Socialist party to fit the limitations of the EU framework and in so doing, ultimately alienate a core, ideologically motivated grassroots or call, as some of the radical Left have, for the setting of national objectives in defiance of the limitations imposed by Brussels (possibly as part of a movement for a Sixth Republic, as advocated by Radical Leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon). The third – and possibly more likely – option involves infighting within the Socialist party, which will likely paralyse the government. Could the narrow room for manoeuvre for political parties as imposed by the EU ultimately undermine national politics to the extent of buttressing radical parties? The rise of the Front National could be one indication of this. It remains to be seen whether the Left will succeed in offering a competing vision to Le Pen’s increasing monopoly of that protest vote. What is more certain is that the infighting within the main parties on both Left and Right could mean politics will increasingly be played out on the margins.