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The choice for François Hollande

One year on Andrew Coates sees the French socialist government in deep difficulty.


ust after the anniversary of his electoral triumph France's Socialist President François Hollande faces his toughest test. The European Commission has given his government two years to reduce public spending, notably on the welfare state. They have also recommended that France reduce the ‘cost' of labour, questioned the level of the minimum wage, and called for more competition in services (Le Monde 31.5.13) In a political climate where even the Hexagone is affected by Euroscepticism, Brussels' demands are explosive.

Hollande has declared that he was already going to reform. Apart from fiscal strictness he will ‘simplify' the welfare state to find savings. He has begun by proposing to alter family tax allowances, but has failed to find a consensus on family benefits as such. Reforming the pension system is even more difficult. France has 33 independent retirement regimes. Across the welfare state these complex ‘millefeuilles' administrations exist. Not only are they hard to change quickly but there is also the memory of the 1995 strikes and protests against the reform of the Health Service, not to mention the trade union movement against pension age rises during the Sarkozy Presidency.

The Socialist President scores only 29% approval ratings in the opinion polls (Le Monde 5.6.13). Economic growth is 0.2%. Unemployment stands at 3,525,300 and continues to rise. The figures show that only 41.8% receive the ‘contributory' benefit Ed Miliband advocates – the rest, if they qualify - much lower minimum levels. The resulting intricacy of the payment bureaucracy contributes to their cost and the resentment of the out-of-work.

Hollande has faced another challenge. France's ‘culture wars' over gay marriage have polarised public opinion. Over the last few months hundreds of thousands have protested against legislation to bring in marriage for same sex couples and to give them the right to adopt. Brought on the street by religious, principally Catholic, leaders, demonstrations have been backed by a variety of right-wing parties. They have refused to accept that a Parliamentary majority, backed by a majority of the population, can pass these measures.

Sarkozy's UMP has been joined by the Front National and groupuscles even further right. Under the banner of the ‘printemps français' some have attempted a ‘May 68 of the Right', parodying the libertarian spirit of the ‘sixties to attack the ‘permissive society' created by the left. Their voices have been virulent and they have not shrunk from violence. At the start of June, the death of young anti-fascist Clément Méric at the hands of one of these far-right bands, has cast a shadow over the agitation.

Hollande's ability to keep his specific electoral promises, such an employing more teaching staff, has counted for less than the overall impression of his politics. The road from such ‘small steps' to a Europe-wide economic ‘governance', is far from clear. That the Budget Minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, was found out engaging in massive tax evasion has only served to reinforce public distrust.

The reasons for this lie deep. If the Socialist Party has become an established party of government, it is not certain what it intends to do with its power. Hollande stands for a ‘co-operative' capitalism, but wants to share out the profits to all. This is social democracy, even if the President calls himself a socialist. (Le Monde. 24.5.13) An unexpected effect of the internal ‘primary' selection process for its Presidential candidacy is that rivals, notably Arnaud Montebourg, now Minister of Industry, act with the proven support (17.9%) of an internal party base. Montebourg is there to promote a proactive industrial strategy, against the hostility of many employers.

Martine Bulard has listed the areas in which the Socialists, already modest, programme has been watered down, (Le Monde Diplomatique. April 2013). He has not renegotiated the ‘stability pact' with Germany, postponing plans for Europe-wide growth. Budgetary discipline, dropping policies for reindustrialisation, and company wide agreements for wage restraint, in return for a promise of job security (agreed by only one section of the trade union movement) have taken priority over sharing out the wealth. The top tax rate of 75% has proved, as Cahuzac illustrated, more symbolic than real.

On the left for the Front de gauche Jean-Luc Mélenchon (over 11% in the 2012 Presidential elections) has denied that Hollande is even a social democrat but a ‘social liberal'. He links France's difficulties to the crisis of the Euro, warns of the Mediterranean countries' problems spreading, and rejects Brussels' demands for austerity. Mélenchon and his allies reject the stability and competition treaties, and want a kind of continental People's Assembly to completely reform the European Union.

In the monumental Les Gauches Françaises (2012), Jacques Julliard considered Hollande's potential policies. Could a renewed social democracy be able to take back from finance capital and the managerial class the share of profits they monopolise? Or would Hollande be forced to promote growth beyond anything else? It is far from obvious that austerity will do anything other than damage either hope. The prospect of a revived Right looms, as does the rise of a left hostile to the Socialists. What will Hollande decide? To govern, as they say, is to choose.