Pinning Down Hollande
IT was one of those rare political moments when the campaign- screech and repetitive mumbling stopped. Last week, a French television interviewer asked Francois Hollande, the favourite to win France’s presidential election on Sunday, if he thought there were too many foreigners in France. Simple question, and one central to a campaign where extremists of the right and left won 30 percent of the votes in a first-round ballot.
Yet Hollande would not answer yes or no. He reached for legalisms instead.
The journalist poked again: “Why this tendency to evade things? What’s your profound conviction? You aren’t telling us.” More references followed from Hollande involving the status of legal foreign residents and the possible expulsion of illegals.
The interviewer insisted: “Deep inside, what’s your conviction?” “I’m not a commentator on public life,” Hollande replied. “I am the next president of France.” The polls say so too. And if Hollande wins, the French will have chosen a man at ease with generalities who aspires to be “willful” and “dignified,” a symbol of “brotherhood” and “bringing people together.” But he’s not the personification of clarity. As standard-bearer of a programme of “change” – his own watchword – Hollande doesn’t offer explicit and decisive plans for reforms in French economic and civic life, remains silent about the pain and disruption that would come with any serious structural changes, and relies on the lingering unpopularity of President Nicolas Sarkozy to put the Socialists in office.
Evasive? Think of this: Here is a self-described Man of the Left who, with a pol’s calculation, refuses to say on national television that no, France doesn’t have too many foreigners.
Sarkozy, at least, has risked claiming the opposite.
Instead, to deal with the rubbedraw issues of Muslim immigration and integration, Hollande flees anything that sounds like a call for an affirmative action programme.
His friends say charm and amiability are at the centre of Hollande’s character. His political enemies argue he is an eternal manoeuvre more calculating than courageous.
And, indeed, the Socialist candidate stepped around any word of criticism for the left-wing extremist Jean-Luc Malenchon when he compared Sarkozy to Vichy’s pro-Nazi collaborators.
Even Hollande’s eldest son Thomas, a lawyer, has described his father’s personality as “elusive.” Call it elusiveness or sidestepping, Hollande’s approach extends to the Socialist economic programme at the heart of the election campaign and France’s grief. Rightly, he has called for an EU growth program me to compensate for the austerity measures of its fiscal compact – which the candidate, probably bluffing, says his France will not ratify without a complementary growth package.
The problem in France is that no sustained growth or real competitiveness can develop without structural reform in key areas like the labor market. For Hollande, that would mean both a clash with the labor unions that turn out the vote for him, and renouncing a Socialist sacrament like the country’s 35-hour work week.
In an extraordinary question-andanswer session at the left-wing newspaper Liberation (basically home turf for the candidate), Hollande was caught skirting anything like a serious explanation of how he would achieve growth.
It would come sweet and tender: “First of all, there’s what technological progress can bring us. And there’s the ecological transition, which is a growth factor. Secondly, there’s cooperation between countries, and that’s Europe’s stake.” Thus, a sunshine-and-clear-water remedy, with the additives of incantation and evasion, not deep structural reform.
The EU Commission has on its own recommended steps similar to Hollande’s additional calls for assistance from the European Investment Bank, and the European Union’s structural funds. But Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, has insisted that only painful structural reforms “clashing with important interests” in member countries – measures of the kind Hollande runs from – will make for sustained growth.
I talked with a cabinet minister responsible for European affairs from another core EU country about how – assuming Hollande is elected – the new Socialist president would be tested. He said the candidate, who has described financial markets as his “adversaries” and has no experience at the national government level, knows that as president he must move away from his proposed debt-making projects.
“Because of the markets’ doubts and France’s vulnerability,” the minister said, “the U-turn will have to happen overnight. Europe will try to help him, but he doesn’t have a yearand- a half to change course, as Francois Mitterrand did.” Last week, Hollande unwittingly answered the question of whether a man marked by comfort with evasion can turn into a full-frontal bulwark of frankness and decision in a matter of days in early May.
Drowning in cheers at a rally, he assured his backers, “There’s no difference between a campaign and a term in office.”