French President François Hollande. Photo: Getty
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Where has the French Left gone?

The recent dissolution of the government reflects the increasing pressure on Hollande to turn around a dire economic outlook.

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.

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a freelance journalist and broadcaster (France, Middle East and North Africa, Islam) and a DPhil candidate in Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit