France confronts its famous malaise

May 10, 2013 12:00 am | Updated 06:07 am IST

A year ago, there was a sense of euphoria in France. Francois Hollande had just swept Nicolas Sarkozy and his Conservatives out of power, and the Socialists were jubilant over a hard-won victory following three successive presidential defeats.

That euphoria has evaporated. Polls indicate that the French are anxious, depressed and uncertain about their future. Mr. Hollande’s approval ratings are down to a mere 25 per cent. No French President has plunged to quite such depths quite so fast. Polls suggest that were an election to be held today, the ebullient Mr. Sarkozy would be a sure winner.

Hollande’s poll promises

During his electoral campaign, Mr. Hollande promised job creation, debt reduction, 60,000 more schoolteachers, better policing, taxes on the rich and sops for the poor. He said he would balance the books, usher in a new prosperity, stem France’s de-industrialisation, set aside money for research and overhaul the creaking public education system. Very little of that has happened.

As France marks the Socialists’ first year in office, a deep and enduring sense of pessimism and despondency that many refer to as the famous French malaise, pervades the social and economic fabric of the country.

“It is true that Europe is in the grip of an unprecedented economic and social crisis. But France is not the worst off country in Europe. In fact, compared to southern European economies, we are doing relatively well. So why this anxiety, this lack of confidence? What France is experiencing is a deep identity crisis, an existential crisis if you like,” said historian and publisher Olivier Betourne in an interview with The Hindu .

Mr. Betourne, who, as Director of the influential publishing house Le Seuil, has edited several books analysing the current financial, economic and industrial limbo in France, says the country is finding it hard to come to grips with what it is and to define what it wants to be.

“We are at a crucial point. For over 30 years we have lived on credit, pillaging public coffers and piling on the debt. That now has to end. But what fork in the road do we take? Does France go down the protectionist path and leave Europe as the extreme right would want us to do, or does it opt for the painful choice of greater European integration which would entail a full-throated acceptance of globalisation and the sacrifices that flow from it — lower pensions, longer working lives, a relative loss of sovereignty and independent political clout? The first would result in France being reduced to a puny, isolationist regional power. But the second path too would mean a denting of our self-image as a proud and independent nation. France is vacillating between these two choices and it’s a painful process,” he said.

So grim is the French mood and such is the extent of French disenchantment with the political establishment, that “ tous pourris ,” or “all rotten,” is how they have taken to describing those who govern them.

There is no doubt that the country is doing badly. With over 3.2 million jobless, unemployment is at its highest since 1977 when the 1974 oil shock produced the first post-war recession in Europe. The fiscal deficit is unacceptably high. Growth has continued to stagnate at less than one per cent. Scandal after financial scandal (both from the left and the right) has revealed unprecedented corruption in public life.

In the face of rapidly rising unpopularity, a seemingly unperturbed Hollande has tried to put up a brave front. But his government is faltering. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault appears unable to impose any kind of discipline; ministers snipe at one another and there is a definite sense of drift.

The Franco-German relationship, which has been the motor of most major changes and achievements within the European Union, has seriously unravelled because of divergent views on how best to solve Europe’s debt crisis. German Chancellor Angela Merkel who is facing re-election in September has further tightened the screws, refusing to budge on her insistence on austerity and budget cuts in order to balance the books in Europe. The French call her intransigent. The Germans describe the French as the “spoilt brats” of Europe.

Tensions with Germany

Several French Ministers have openly made calls for a confrontation with Germany. Mr. Hollande has tried to play down these strains as ‘friendly tension,’ but Ministers and the President of the national parliament are not amused. The President has maintained an amiable ambiguity over this and other dissent, much in the mode of India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

“President Hollande has to shed his ambiguity and come out with a clear line of action. His margin for manoeuvre is limited. On the one hand, there is pressure from the Leftist electorate that feels he has not defended jobs, unemployment benefits or pensions, especially for the socially weak. Working class voters are crossing over to the extreme right National Front. Mr. Hollande is also under pressure from the centrists who feel he has not done enough to cut spending or rein in the country’s spiralling debt. So he is caught between conflicting demands. He has a problem of readability and he is falling between two stools, losing on both fronts,” said Pascal Perrineau, Director of the Centre for Research at the School of Political Science in Paris.

Because the President wants to please everyone at the same time, he appears to vacillate, appeasing now this, now that segment of the electorate,” said Mr. Perrineau. “It is this drift, this lack of decisive leadership, that adds to the French mood of deep pessimism.”

Many are expecting a political shake-up and a major cabinet reshuffle.

“He could reshuffle but he shouldn’t fire his prime minister. European elections are due in early 2014 and the National Front will corner a worrying 25 per cent of the vote. That will be a rude awakening for France, a time to decisively reject the Front’s anti-immigrant, isolationist policies. That is when he should bring in a strong, decisive prime minister”, said Mr. Betourne.

Mr. Hollande has little choice and no time to lose. Painful reforms on pensions, reallocation of budgets, cutbacks in bureaucracy and spending must come quickly. “There is no other way forward. The old socialist model is dead. All that social democracy can do now is cushion the shock for the most vulnerable in society. But the welfare state as we have known it — living way beyond our means on borrowed money — must be transformed and modernised if we are to survive. Social democracy must reinvent itself,” Mr. Betourne said.

Mr. Hollande is going forward gently, a step forward, a step back. But the people appear to want action, not hesitation. There is a sudden nostalgia for the “hyper president” Nicolas Sarkozy who, polls show, would trounce Mr. Hollande were elections to be held now. “If Sarko was a hyper president, Hollande is a hypo president. He must act quickly and decisively,” Mr. Perrineau said.

France has always been at the forefront of liberal reform when it comes to social issues. The world was shocked therefore at the huge backlash against the homosexual community when the government attempted to legislate in favour of same sex marriage. Fervent Catholics, the National Front and the Conservatives joined hands and continue to demonstrate despite the fact that the Bill has become law. They have promised a mammoth demonstration on May 26, which is expected to bring over a million people on to the streets.

‘Identity crisis’

“This totally unexpected reaction, almost fundamentalist in nature, is another indication of France’s deep identity crisis. Hollande will have to have the courage to stare down people from his own political family who expect the welfare state’s generous handouts to continue and give the nod to a stringent closing of the purse strings. Take a step to the right,” said Mr. Betourne, a left-winger himself.

France is “too big to fail” and for the moment Brussels is not piling on the pressure. The country also continues to enjoy the confidence of the financial and business community despite warnings from various rating agencies which have struck down France’s AAA rating. Investors are certain the European Central Bank will do whatever it takes to keep France solvent. The European Commission has already said it will give Paris more time to get its budget deficit down so long as serious changes are made.

“The reason why Hollande must produce results in the year to come is because the French are an emotive and volatile people. Once their patience snaps, there can be a total paralysis of the country through mass demonstrations and work stoppages. There could be social chaos. Hollande must not allow the situation to deteriorate that far. He must not take comfort from the fact that he has four more years of his presidency left. That would be dangerous,” said Mr. Betourne.

The influential left wing daily Le Monde signalled the need for immediate action in a signed editorial: “The President must act urgently to avoid setting France on a collision course of social and political discord. It will require as much tenacity and skill as it will courage and pedagogy. The time is now.”

Such is the people’s disenchantment

with the Socialists whom they voted to power a year ago that there is a sudden nostalgia for Nicolas Sarkozy

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