France – 2016: President Hollande’s annus horribilis

2016 is turning out to be President Hollande’s Annus horribilis.  The incumbent President’s misfortunes in 2016 appear compounded by the quickening pace of political decline, as the 2017 presidential election approaches. As this blog entry is written, French President François Hollande appears to face an impossible dilemma: to be the first President not to stand for re-election, or to stand as candidate with the danger of not reaching the second round.[1] Hollande’s predicament might be interpreted in terms of a series of inappropriate responses to specific events, in which case the Socialist President is a victim of the normal rhythms of extraordinary times. There are any number of key events to choose from: we consider the aborted constitutional reform of 2016 below.  Hollande’s descent might also be interpreted as the culmination of a series of design faults: the original sin of the mode of election in 2012; the result of a particular style and discourse; the unintended consequences of the political responses to the terrorist attacks on 2015; the longer term impact of economic crisis and the failure to bring down unemployment. All of these factors recall the weak political, partisan and sociological basis of support from the outset. To understand Hollande’s predicament we need thereby to mix levels of analysis: to capture the structural, partisan and political bases of the current presidential weakness, as well as individual responses.

Hollande’s original sin lay in the manner of his election as President in 2012. His 2012 presidential campaign was fought in large part as an anti-Sarkozy referendum, designed to preserve an early opinion poll lead that was mainly built upon a popular rejection of Sarkozy. A majority of second round voters (51%, compared with 31% in 2007) declared that they had voted negatively (for the candidate best placed to prevent the less preferred candidate from being elected) and only a minority declared they had voted positively for their candidate (49%, compared with 69% in 2007). [2] His candidacy was based on his strategic political positioning as being a ‘normal’ candidate and president, a style deliberately adopted to be the counterpart of the flamboyant Sarkozy. Once elected President, however, Hollande experienced a rapid descent from popularity, much faster and more thorough than any previous president. The failure to act during the first 100 days represented a lost opportunity.  He was trapped by the frame of normality during a period of economic crisis; the attraction of a “normal” President who ignored the economic tempest in a wave of enforced optimism soon wore off.   For the 2012 electoral series was fought in a context of economic crisis; voters were almost as pessimistic about the ability of Hollande to ‘improve the situation of the country’ (26%), as they were about Sarkozy (25%). [3]  Hollande’s claim to normality had also involved a commitment to keep his private life out of the public domain, but the public jealously displayed by Valerie Trierweiler, Hollande’s erstwhile partner, destroyed this aspiration very early on. Hollande’s personal judgement was then called into question by a succession of scandals involving leading figures of the Socialist-led government. By far the most important scandal was that of Jerome Cahouzec, the first Budget Minister whose reputation for integrity was destroyed by evidence of a secret bank account in Switzerland (despite his repeated denials).

I have argued elsewhere that the Hollande presidency has been undermined by the weakness of a consistent legitimising discourse[4]. It is unclear to many what Hollande represents. There is a weakness of story-telling, the construction of a coherent narrative to describe and justify governmental action. Is Hollande a traditional social-democrat? There was certainly a sustained effort during the Ayrault premiership (2012-2014) to revive a social-democratic discourse, and to give substance to this by using social-democratic instruments such as the annual social conference between the government, the business associations and the trade unions; the principle of negotiated solutions to labour laws and training, and the state’s involvement in attempting to reduce unemployment by subsidised jobs for young people. The core problem lay in the inability to resolve the most intractable policy issue of them all, unemployment. Hollande’s commitment in 2013 to ‘reverse’ the rising level of unemployment provided a hostage to fortune. By early 2016, no major diminution of the unemployment rate had occurred, with France comparing unfavourably with her main EU partners and competitors. Hollande did not convince as a social-democratic president, not least because of his inability to resolve this most intractable problem of domestic policy.  Was he more successful as a ‘social-liberal’? Hollande began the ‘social-liberal’ turn in 2013 (when a governmental programme, the CICE, first reduced various business taxes) faced with evidence of France’s sluggish economic performance and the tense relations with the business community. The main programme was the pacte de responsabilité in January 2014: 50 billion euros of reductions in business taxes, against the (unfulfilled) expectation that firms would begin hiring workers again. If the social-liberal orientation was determined by Hollande’s choices, the responsibility for justification lay with premier Valls (from April 2014) and increasingly from the ambitious minister of Finance Emmanuel Macron, who steered his own liberalisation programme in 2015.

At the end of December 2015 Hollande obtained some of his best poll ratings since taking office[5]. Hollande has enjoyed the most success with a Republican narrative, centred on education, citizenship, the role of France in the international arena and the Nation. In 2015, Hollande appeared as the embodiment of national unity against the internal and external terrorist threat. The right tone was struck, in the mass rallies of January 11th 2015 in defence of the Republic after the attacks on Charlie- Hebdo and in the convoking of Congress in Versailles, just days after the November 13th outrage.  In his address to the Congress, Hollande received a standing ovation. He also made a dual commitment: to reform the 1958 constitution to provide a firmer footing for the state of urgency[6]; and to deprive terrorists of French nationality (initially those with dual nationality, later on all French nationals). These two related but distinct articles were imagined in order to provide a firm response to terrorist attacks, but also to embarrass the political right into supporting constitutional reform (Hollande’s previous attempt to amend the constitution, to include the reform of regional languages, had failed in 2015 due to the obstruction of the Senate).

Once the dust of the Versailles speech had settled, the dual offensive was doubly offensive to the ‘usual suspects’ (the frondeurs, Martine Aubry, the Socialist mayor of Lille, the ‘left of the left’), but also more generally to Socialist deputies, if not to broader public opinion (which supported the position adapted by the executive on both counts). The proposal to refer to the state of urgency in the 1958 constitution was criticised by some lawyers as providing a constitutional basis for what is by definition an irregular process[7], but these arguments left public opinion indifferent. Hollande’s manoeuvre was designed to rally support from across the political spectrum, in particular from the Republicans whose approval would be necessary to allow any constitutional reform. Here was a potentially popular reform, albeit one that divided constitutionalists, aroused opposition to some of its elements from the Constitutional Council[8] and appeared to strengthen administrative circuits and the police at the expense of legal authority and the judges.  The article would have consecrated the power of the French president to determine what constitutes a state of urgency and minimise parliamentary involvement.

The controversy aroused by the State of emergency was as nothing compared to that of the proposal to deprive terrorists of their French nationality should they be convicted of terrorist crimes. The initial proposal was to remove French nationality from bi-national citizens convicted of terrorist attacks. Faced with firm opposition, especially from Socialist deputies, an amended proposal was introduced whereby any convicted terrorist could be deprived of their French nationality, potentially creating apatricides. As Patrick Weil pointed out, there were problems with each of these positions: to deprive only bi-nationals of their French nationality was tantamount to discrimination and to creating two classes of citizenship (against the equality inherent in the Declarations of the Rights of Man)[9]. But the proposal to remove French nationality from any convicted terrorist might leave certain citizens without a nationality. If the first proposal clearly went against the canons of French republican equality, the second one was manifestly contrary to international jurisprudence and law. After four months of high drama, the constitutional reform bill eventually fell in March 2016, once the Senate refused to accept the terms of the constitutional reform finally approved

in the National Assembly[10]. The saga further alienated the left (including losing the Justice minister Christian Taubira, the symbol of left-wing authenticity within the Valls government) without rallying the right in support of the constitutional change. Eventually both measures fell victim to the decision to abandon the constitutional reform. The real fault was a political one. This idea of removing nationality from terrorists has long been associated with the UMP (Sarkozy in 2010) and even the National Front (Front national – FN), whose spokesperson declared the FNs agreement with the proposal.   The political damage caused by this saga has been considerable for the lack of any positive outcome. The response was to divide further an already emasculated left, without opening up a viable electoral alternative.

One of the core constituencies supporting Hollande in 2012 was that of the youngest age cohorts (18-24, 25-34). Shortly on the heels of the constitutional saga, the proposed El Khomri law revealed how difficult it can be for any government, including a Socialist-led one, to maintain a constructive relationship with young people on the verge of entering the labour market. The merits of the proposed El Khomri law (which initially set out to reform [modestly] the labour code, to liberalise [somewhat] the conditions under which firms could lay-off workers and to limit job-loss payments) might be debated. The employer’s association, the MEDEF, has long argued that the French labour code is impossibly complex and has posited a clear link between excessive regulation and the stubborn refusal of the unemployment curve to begin its movement downwards. In drafting the initial project, premier Valls listened closely to be MEDEF (and rather less closely to PS deputies or traditional support organisations such as the student union, the UNEF).  In rather typical style, weak consultation produced a social movement which, in turn, led the government to abandon key elements of the proposed legislation. Rather like the Macron Law in 2015, the proposals that eventually emerged fell far short of their initial ambition.  Perhaps the Socialists have nothing to expect from the MEDEF. But the rupture with ‘young people’ was the real downside of this series. The most contentious issues were abandoned before the law had been introduced in the Council of Ministers. And yet this climb-down was not enough to put the genie of France’s youth back into the bottle, as the mobilisation against the Loi el Khomri was transformed into the nuits debout movement, staring in the Place de la République in Paris and extending outwards to the French cities shortly after, the symbol of a divided left and a youth in revolt, renewing with a classic register (social protest) aimed against the incumbent socialist government. The mobilisation of students and school pupils against the proposed El Khomri Law recalled that one decade earlier against the First Employment Contract (Contrat premier emploi – CPE) of de Villepin government. The merits of the case need not be reviewed extensively here. That the dual labour market might be responsible for the high level of youth employment does not figure as part of the mental map of the protesters against labour market insecurity. But the management of the Valls- Hollande tandem was clearly defective. Neither the minister, Myriam El Khomri, nor premier Valls was able to reassure and satisfy a youth fearful of labour flexibility and desirous of the full time permanent contracts that their parents enjoyed.

Faced with these setbacks, the latest batch of opinion surveys provide little solace for Hollande. The third round of the CEVIPOF’s 2017 Barometer casts doubt on Hollande’s personal judgement. Even more recent surveys have suggested that Hollande, as PS candidate, would not reach the second round and, if he did, would be defeated by Marine Le Pen[11]. These findings are incredibly damaging, as they undermine Hollande’s attempt to position himself as Father of the Nation, defending the Republic against its enemies. In this fin de règne there is new evidence of lèse majesté: in the form of the ambitious political positioning of Emmanuel Macron, the new darling of the polls on the left. Though Macron owes his political ascension to President Hollande (Assistant General Secretary of the Elysée, named as Finance minister in April 2014),  in early April 2016 the ambitious énarque announced the creation of a new political movement, En Marche, explicitly aiming to  transcend left and right. Whatever the fortunes of this movement (there have been others), it is difficult to see how it cannot be experienced as a form of treason by Hollande, protector and promotor of the ambitious Macron as a counterweight to premier Valls and a bridge to the business world.  Valls, trapped by solidarity with Hollande and by co-management of the executive for over two years, is no longer the young reformer anxious to sweep aside the existing Socialist order. Macron is much less constrained and more likely to ‘kill the father’.

These events tells us something about Hollande’s presidential style. The official optimism of public speeches throughout the Hollande presidency was in stark contrast with popular perceptions of failure. The 2012-2017 presidential term has been defined in part by a style that posits a preference for formal consultation over open confrontation. There is much to be said for the art of refined compromise, especially after the fractures of the Sarkozy years.  Hollande’s celebrated capacity for synthesis was developed over years as First Secretary of the Socialist Party, and involved an intimate knowledge of PS networks, and of the changing centre of gravity within the party.  If the advantage is flexibility, and the ability to adapt to a changing centre of gravity, the downside is the challenge of consistency, credibility and coherence. Ultimately, Hollande’s reputation has suffered from the ambiguities of the 2012 campaign, from the lasting impression of a lack of coordination within the executive and in relations with the Socialist-led majority and, above all, by perceptions of a poor policy record, marked notably by the failure to control unemployment.

Notes

[1]  ‘François Hollande dans une position toujours plus difficile avant la Présidentielle’   IPSOS- CEVIPOF-Le Monde, 30 March 2016, http://www.ipsos.fr/decrypter-societe/2016-03-30-francois-hollande-dans-position-toujours-plus-difficile-avant-presidentielle. In the third wave of the CEVIPOF’s Barometer, by far the largest rolling survey with over 20,000 respondents, Francois Hollande was in third position whether the Republican candidate was Alain Juppé (14%), or Nicolas Sarkozy (16%). Hence, the incumbent President would be eliminated on the first round.

[2] Jaffré, J. (2012) ‘Ce que signifie le vote du 6 mai’, Le Monde, 5 June.

[3] Op. cit.

[4] Cole, A. (2014) ‘Not Saying, Not Doing:  Convergences, Contingencies and Causal Mechanisms of State Reform and Decentralisation in Hollande’s France’ French Politics 12 (2): 104-135.

[5]  In an IFOP-Fiducial poll for Paris Match and Sud Radio, 27-28 November 2015, Hollande obtained 50% of positive opinions. Cited in Le Monde, 2-4 January 2016.  By 26 April 2016, Hollande was credited with only 17% of favourable opinions (83% unfavourable) in an ODOXA survey for L’Express.

[6] The state of urgency, ruled by a law dating from 1955 at the height of the Algerian crisis, is not to be confused with the state of emergency (Article 16), which allows the President to suspend the normal operation of the Constitution.

[7]  Beaud, O (2016) ‘Ce projet de réforme constitutionnelle est inutile et inepte’, Le Monde, 2 February.

[8] In response to a Question prioritaire de constitutionalité, (QPC) the Constitutional Council demanded a much stricter control of the conditions under which computer hard disks could be copied, which emptied the measure of much of  its operational effectiveness.

[9] Weil, P. (2016) ‘Le principe d’égalité est un pilier de notre identité’, Le Monde, 8 January.

[10] Bekmezian, H. (2016) ‘Le Sénat enterre la décheance de nationalité’, Le Monde 19th March ; Le Monde (2016) ‘les principales réactions à l’abandon de la réforme constitutionnelle’ Available at : http://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2016/03/30/les-principales-reactions-a-l-abandon-de-la-reforme-constitutionnelle_4892495_823448.html#vZUkG8eYkkGyg1mZ.99 (consulted 27 April 2016).

[11] For example, according to the IFOP – Fiducial poll (17/04/2016) for i-tele, Paris-Match and Sud Radio, Le Pen would win a (very hypothetical) Le Pen-Hollande run off in 2017 by 53% to 47% http://www.ifop.com/media/poll/3363-1-study_file.pdf.

4 thoughts on “France – 2016: President Hollande’s annus horribilis

  1. Alexandre Oberlin

    Hello,

    Though I am French, I learned a few things reading this article as I have ceased to regularly follow French politics. Are you aware of a synthesis in English about the recently adopted law on the so called modernisation of the rules for the presidential election in France (« modernisation des règles applicables à l’élection présidentielle ») ?

    Regards,

    Alexandre Oberlin

    Reply
    1. Alistair Cole Post author

      Dear Alexandre Thanks for your message. I’m not aware of anything yet in English, but you are right to point out the change and I’ll dig further

      Reply
      1. Alexandre Oberlin

        Hello Alistair, thanks for your answer.

        I had to go to the antipodes to find something at http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL1604/S00061/a-peaceful-political-revolution-begins-in-france-500-words.htm
        The so-called “modernisation law” contains provisions which:
        – make it harder for candidates to collect the 500 mayoral signatures they need to stand by a) making the list of signatures public and b) changing the rules so that the mayors have to submit their sponsorship statements to the Constitutional Court directly rather than allowing the candidates to collect submit the signatures ;
        – halve the period of “equal time” coverage during which the media have to give minor candidates a chance to be heard;
        – halve the period of time during which candidates have to account for their campaign expenses from 12 months to 6 months, thereby making it easier and cheaper for the major candidates who are already in political office to campaign without running foul of the rules.

        Just another utter crackdown on democracy…

        Cheers,

        Alexandre Oberlin

        Reply
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