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

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

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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