The sorrows of Mr Weak

Since the minister in charge of tax avoidance was forced to admit to a secret Swiss bank account, François Hollande’s entire government has begun to look shaky. How did it go so wrong, so fast?

The optimism at the end of Sarkozy's era vanished as Hollande (centre) seemed to dither. Photograph: Raymond Depardon/Magnum Photos

One blustery day in mid-April, I left my pied-à-terre in Paris’s 11th arrondissement and headed south towards the Seine. I crossed the river by the Île Saint-Louis and made for Gibert Jeune, a large bookshop on the Left Bank at the northern end of the Boulevard Saint-Michel. I was searching for a copy of Rien ne se passe comme prévu (“nothing goes as planned”) by Laurent Binet. It is a quasijournalistic account, inflected with some of the mannerisms of American New Journalism, of François Hollande’s 2011-2012 campaign for the French presidency.

I’d enjoyed Binet’s novel, HHhH, and was interested to discover what he made of Hollande, the upper-middle-class doctor’s son, born in Rouen in 1954, who had committed himself to the politics of the left at a young age. I remembered the excitement that his campaign, with its commitment to levy a 75 per cent tax on high incomes, had elicited in Labour circles on this side of the Channel. Was this deceptively mild-mannered fonctionnaire, whose rhetoric often evoked the days of the Popular Front in the 1930s, a model for a new generation of social-democratic leaders in Europe?

By the time I arrived in Paris, however, the excitement that Hollande once induced on the left was a distant memory. The 75 per cent tax on those earning more than €1m a year had been ruled unconstitutional and the accidental president’s poll ratings were in free fall. The weekly news magazine L’Expressseemed to catch the popular mood with a cover depicting Hollande as “Monsieur Faible” (“Mr Weak”).

Having found a second-hand copy of Binet’s book, I walked west to the seventh arrondissement to meet the English writer and academic Andrew Hussey. He works at the Paris outpost of the University of London and his office overlooks the Esplanade des Invalides, close to the National Assembly, the lower house of the French parliament. The following week, the esplanade would be thronged with protesters, most of them Catholic, agitating against legislation to legalise gay marriage and adoption. In the small hours of 18 April a scuffle broke out on the floor of the Assembly when a rightwing opponent of gay marriage brandished a woman’s shoe that belonged, he claimed, to a young female protester. The next day the papers were full of excited talk about a Catholic “printemps français” (French spring) and even a right-wing version of the protests of May 1968.

None of this would have surprised Hussey, who has made the subject of intellectual and political violence in France his own. Over lunch, we talked about the lurid rhetorical overinvestment that so often characterises French politics, the obsession with gloire and grandeur. It struck me later that the French still expect their president to embody national grandeur, and that the mild and reticent Hollande struggles to do so.

Just how much he is struggling was made clear in an opinion poll published in Le Journal du Dimanche on 21 April, less than a year after he replaced Nicolas Sarkozy in the Élysée Palace. Seventy-four per cent of respondents declared themselves “unhappy” with his performance.

Never in the 55-year history of the French Fifth Republic have approval ratings for an incumbent president been so low so early in a presidency. Sarkozy achieved a comparable level of dissatisfaction (72 per cent) in April 2011, but by then he was almost four years in to the job; hisimmediate predecessor, Jacques Chirac, earned the opprobrium of 70 per cent of those polled in November 1995, and that was in the middle of a general strike. The only other Socialist president of the Fifth Republic, François Mitterrand, managed a disapproval rating of 65 per cent in December 1991, three and a half years in to a second seven-year term. As for the architect of the Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle, the worst it ever got for him was in March 1963, when a poll showed that 40 per cent of voters were unhappy with his leadership.

Hollande’s abject standing in the polls owes something to the humiliation of his former budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac. On 2 April Cahuzac finally admitted, after a series of straight-faced denials, that he had used a secret Swiss bank account to avoid paying tax in France.

By then, the affair had been rumbling on for several months. In December, the investigative website Mediapart claimed that Cahuzac, who began his career as a cosmetic surgeon specialising in hair transplants, had kept an account at UBS in Geneva since the early 1990s. Mediapart’s case relied heavily on a report into Cahuzac’s financial affairs written in 2008 by Rémy Garnier, a former tax inspector in the south-western department of Lot-et-Garonne, where Cahuzac’s parliamentary constituency was located.

Cahuzac’s response to the revelations was swift and robust. He described Mediapart’s claims as “defamatory” and insisted in interviews that he had “never” had a bank account in Switzerland or anywhere else outside France. He also assured the prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, of his good faith. The strategy seemed to be working until, in January this year, magistrates in Paris began building a case against him. Cahuzac’s resignation, which he finally announced on 19 March, was by then inevitable.

As a consequence of the affair, Hollande has become the focus for deep disaffection with what the French call “la classe politique”, the caste of ideologically nimble and sometimes extravagantly wealthy technocrats who usually fill governments of both right and left.

Like most front-rank French politicians, Hollande is an énarque, a graduate of the elite École Nationale d’Administration. He graduated first in his class in 1981. Among his contemporaries were his ex-partner Ségolène Royal, who ran as the Socialist candidate for president in 2007, the former centre-right prime minister Dominique de Villepin and the head of the new bank for public investment, Jean-Pierre Jouyet.

To the sociologists Michel Pinçon and Monique Pinçon-Charlot, the authors of President of the Rich: an Investigation into the Oligarchy in Sarkozy’s France (2010), the Cahuzac affair was cause for “intense intellectual jubilation”. They told the political weekly Le Nouvel Observateur: “The affair validates our theses concerning this caste which dominates France, this micro-society composed of people from left and right who function in the same way, with their wealth and their networks . . . It was another example of the power of oligarchy after the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal.”

Voters have no doubt made this very connection between Cahuzac and the disgraced Strauss-Kahn, whose likely run for the Socialist nomination for president was derailed by the exposure of a sex scandal in May 2011. (The two men were political allies; they also share a lawyer.) The public will also have recalled that Cahuzac had been leading the Hollande government’s struggle against tax fraud. He helped to draft a finance law that included important measures to combat tax evasion (notably the introduction of a 60 per cent levy on undeclared funds held abroad by French citizens).

Hollande’s response to the scandal has been uncharacteristically decisive. On 10 April, rather than leave it to Ayrault, the president, in the glare of television cameras, announced a wide-ranging “transparency” programme designed, among other things, to “remoralise” public life. The most eye-catching of these emergency measures was the requirement that cabinet ministers make a public declaration of their assets. They did so in short order – Ayrault revealing, to some amusement among journalists, that in addition to two houses worth more than €1m in total, he owns a 1988 Volkswagen kombi valued at €1,000.

It was the second time in a week that Hollande had gone on television to address the French people directly, something they weren’t accustomed to. He declared himself “hurt by what has happened”, an unusual admission from one who makes such a fetish of his sang-froid.

Catherine Fieschi, who is the director of the British think tank Counterpoint and has advised French administrations of all political complexions, tells me that communication has been Hollande’s biggest challenge. “The tragedy of it is that he’s not actually doing badly, though he’s doing very badly in the polls,” she says. “He’s got a huge communications problem.

“The big reproach is that he doesn’t govern. But the fact is that he does govern in most cases, but he’s been very bad at keeping people informed of what he’s doing –wilfully to begin with, because he wanted to break with the Sarkozy model.”

The president recognises that he must offer decisive leadership at a time of national crisis, yet this sits uneasily with his profound mistrust of the imperial presidency that was one of de Gaulle’s most ambiguous legacies. Shortly after Sarkozy was elected in 2007, Hollande denounced the new president’s method, which consisted, he said, of pretending that “the president can do it all alone” and “announcing this on television”. The irony is that Hollande has found himself doing exactly what he criticised Sarkozy for – supposing, as an article in Le Monde put it, that for every crisis, one can concoct a law in response. The Hollande presidency was meant to have broken with such legislative hyperactivity in the name of “normality” and the “exemplary republic”.

Suspicions on the French left about the institutions of the Fifth Republic have a long history. The strong presidency proposed by de Gaulle in 1958, as an antidote to the political instability caused by the Algerian war of independence, was opposed by the leaders of the non-communist left, Mitterrand and Pierre Mendès France. In 1964, Mitterrand published a book, Le coup d’État permanent, in which he accused de Gaulle of replacing the idea of popular representation with that of the infallible strong man. However, this didn’t stop Mitterrand running for president the following year, and again in 1974 and 1981, when at last he won, beating Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

Once he was established in the Elysée, Mitterrand’s misgivings about the “permanent coup d’état” soon evaporated. He had campaigned on the promise of restoring to parliament its “constitutional rights”, but in practice he left it little more room for manoeuvre than de Gaulle had ever envisaged for it. (That said, he was forced to endure “cohabitation” with two prime ministers of the right, Jacques Chirac and Édouard Balladur, an arrangement de Gaulle would have found unconscionable.)

Mitterrand’s exercise of the office of president – the cultivation of courtiers, the manipulation of cliques and the dispensing of favours – earned him the nickname “the Florentine”. Even if Hollande were temperamentally disposed to operating in this way, he could never gather around him enough placemen to build a Machiavellian court. “One of the big problems,” Fieschi says, “is his position within the Parti Socialiste [PS]. He might have been a party apparatchik but he had no support inside the PS headquarters in rue de Solférino. He was an accidental candidate. They rallied behind him when they saw he had a chance after the fall of Strauss-Kahn, but I don’t think he really had the party with him.”

Indeed, the party was notably quick, in the person of its first secretary, Harlem Désir, to criticise the government’s handling of economic policy, which Désir judged too focused on deficit reduction at the expense of growth and the fight against unemployment. This criticism was echoed recently by three ministers, including Arnaud Montebourg, who ran to Hollande’s left in the Socialist presidential primary in autumn 2011. Montebourg expressed scepticism at the balancing act that Hollande and the finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, are attempting: making the reduction of the deficit –which, at the end of 2012, stood at 4.8 per cent of economic output – their main priority, in deference to their German partners, while denying that this requires “austerity” measures of the kind being adopted elsewhere in Europe.

Hollande has two problems in this regard. First, he has to manage the expectations of his own party and of PS supporters more broadly. And here the shadow of Mitterrand looms once again. March 2013 marked the 30th anniversary of his “turn to austerity”, when, in the face of rising unemployment, high inflation and exchange-rate difficulties that led to a succession of devaluations of the franc, his government formally abandoned the model of statist economic management it had adopted in 1981.

March 1983 was a seminal moment in the history of the Parti Socialiste. Arthur Goldhammer, a historian of French politics who teaches at Harvard, has written that the PS remains divided “between those who have deeply internalised the U-turn of 1981-83 as a step in the right direction”, an accommodation with the world as it is and not as Socialists would wish it to be, and “those who look back on it as a mistake”. Hollande belongs in the first camp; Montebourg and critics to the president’s left place themselves in the second.

Hollande’s other problem is that his economic policy is failing on its own terms. In the election campaign, in order to outflank his opponent, he accepted Sarkozy’s commitment to reduce the deficit to 3 per cent of output by the end of 2013, partly by means of €10m worth of spending cuts. Despite forecasts of anaemic growth, Hollande reiterated this commitment in office. What Ayrault called a “fighting budget” was announced and the target of a 3 per cent reduction pronounced “realistic”.

In November 2012, during the parliamentary debate on the European “fiscal compact”, many on the left of the party, including the PS first secretary, as well as the foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, a wily political streetfighter who served as prime minister under Mitterrand, protested that the treaty meant “austerity for life”. That same month, the European Commission declared that it was unlikely France would reach the 3 per cent target.

 Hollande insisted it could be achieved, and continued to do so until February this year, when he left it to Ayrault to make the following announcement: “We will not be exactly at 3 per cent at the end of 2013, but we will not be far off.”

Who was the minister despatched to tour the radio and television studios to warn that a recalibration of expectations was imminent? None other than Jérôme Cahuzac. As the right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro reported with some glee, one of Cahuzac’s last acts as a minister was to prepare people for the “burial of a presidential promise”.

Jonathan Derbyshire is the culture editor of the New Statesman