François Hollande’s first year: A review

Университет Стирлинга
26.04.2013793

A year in power and the honeymoon is definitely over for French president François Hollande. Having been elected on a platform of reindustrialisation, increased purchase power and employment security, Hollande’s presidency has been marred by record high unemployment and fiscal impropriety by members of the ruling Socialist Party (PS). Together, mishaps and an unfavourable conjuncture have left the president vulnerable to criticism of inefficiency, incoherence and, more generally, and to prioritising social matters over the ailing economy. Indeed, while the president and his government have been busy, passing 39 laws in the first year of his mandate (just short of the previous incumbent’s unusually prolific 42 laws[1]), frustration and discontent continue to mount over the lack of decisive and effective action on fiscal matters and structural reforms. Together, Hollande’s perceived inaction in economic matters and inability to implement the swift and radical change promised in the electoral campaign have culminated in the expression of high levels of dissatisfaction among the electorate. Moreover, with a grim economic outlook, 2013 does not appear set to do the president or his country any favours. Hollande therefore cannot hope to effect a change in the way he and his government are considered without first addressing the shortcomings which have blighted his first year.

A troubled first year

Elected on May 6 2012 François Hollande took up his functions as the 24th president of the French Republic on May 15, having defeating incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy with 51.64% of the vote. From the beginning, the new president set out to distance himself from the image left by his predecessor. Careful to project the image of a “normal” president, to dispel any parallels drawn to Sarkozy’s perceived extravagance, François Hollande’s first 100 days in power were characterised by the ostensible keeping of campaign promises, within the limits of the possible. Indeed, the first month of Hollande’s presidency preceded the June 17th legislative elections that would go on to give him the majority in parliament required to effectively pass laws.

From the outset, the president focused on social and, arguably, popular policies mapped on his manifesto promises as outlined in his “Agenda of Change”[2]. This reform schedule encompassed three broad themes, namely: the promise to overhaul the manner in which the country was governed, the promise to enhance the quality of life in France, re-establish economic growth and battle unemployment, and the promise to systematically combat social injustices [3]. Thus, while having been elected in part thanks to his anti-austerity rhetoric, Hollande nevertheless had to begin his mandate by presenting a sufficiently austere and rigorous political program to contend with the delicate economic conjuncture facing the country. In particular, one thorn in Hollande’s side that refuses to go away is the record-breaking unemployment facing France today, with around 11% of the active population unemployed. The characteristic of France’s current structural unemployment crisis is its stark polarization, with the young and the old both disproportionately affected by unemployment or precarious contracts (short term, subsidised and/or temporary). In this difficult context, Hollande has strived and struggled to juggle promises and possibilities. In a bid to curb public spending and increase household income, the president’s first measure would therefore be the lowering of ministers’ salaries by 30%, closely followed by the increase of subsidies for families with school-aged children, and the symbolic increase of minimum wage by 2%.

Thus, while Hollande is undeniably a reformist, some of his key policies, however, have proved challenging to pass due to political and public opposition. In particular, this was the case with the proposed 75% tax on those earning more than €1m. Indeed, Hollande had come into power promising to target the rich in a bid to bolster state coffers without increasing the burden on workers by getting rid of tax rebates and focusing instead on capital income taxes. This led to widespread anger as prominent entrepreneurs and personalities spoke out against the tax and, in the case of actor Gerard Depardieu, for example, sought citizenship elsewhere. After a bitter and protracted battle, the French constitutional court ultimately rejected the tax in December, thereby dealing a further blow to Hollande’s record. Ultimately, from 2013 onward, an increased tax rate of 45% will be applied to those who earn more than €150 000.

In other cases, flagship policies were compromised to accommodate the grim realities of the public budget. For example, while Hollande made true to reverse his predecessor decision to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 in 2010, the reform only concerns those having started work before the age of 20 and who have fulfilled their contribution requirements – that is to say a slim 15% of those who currently retire ever year [4]. Finally, the closing of two ArcellorMittal foundries in Florange (Moselle) after a bitter battle over the relocation of parts of production – during which Hollande even threatened the metallurgical giant with nationalisation – is regarded by some as one of the president’s broken promises [5]. Indeed, this episode has cast a long shadow on Hollande’s presidency and generated serious friction with trade unions, which decry the loss of jobs and the failure to protect industry and businesses on French soil.

Scandals, unpopularity ands and criticism

In addition to discontent over the way in which he runs the country, the president has seen his first year in office plagued by political and personal scandals from the very beginning. Indeed, within a month of coming into office, during the campaign leading up to the 2012 legislative elections, Hollande had to deal with the backlash generated against his partner, Valérie Trierweiler, who explicitly backed a dissident socialist candidate, Olivier Falorni against Hollande’s former partner and mother of his children, and Falorni’s opponent for the seat in Charente-maritime, Ségolène Royale, on the social networking site Twitter. Tweetgate, as it came to be called by the press, sparked a debate over the appropriate division of a president’s personal and public life.

In addition to issues stemming from his personal life, which critics have used as evidence of Hollande’s inability to adopt a coherent, consistent and effective presidential style, the president has also suffered from the fall-out linked to the scandal-prone Socialist Party. Indeed, the accusation, in late 2012, of Jérôme Cahuzac, budget Minister, of fiscal fraud and money laundering greatly damaged the reputation and credibility of the party both in the eyes of the electorate and of party sympathisers. While Cahuzac initially denied reports he had a non-declared bank account in a Swiss bank – including a public denial that he had even owned a foreign account in front of the National Assembly on December 5th – he later went on to admit the charges on April 2 2013, sending shock waves throughout the government and the PS, both of which scrambled to address the scandal. The scandal also served as ammunition to opponents of the president and the PS who seized the opportunity to highlight the hypocrisy of a socialist minister defecting from fair-play in matters of taxation.

In the meantime, the press, both at home and abroad, has not done Hollande any favours as he navigates the rough waters of his first year in office [6]. Together, the scandals and the president’s perceived inability to redress the country’s ailing economic growth have served to single François Hollande out, for the time being, as one of the least popular presidents. Indeed, his unpopularity reached an all-time high in April 2013 with 74% of the French electorate declared they were “rather dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with Hollande’s presidency [7]. The discontent extended beyond the president to include the government more broadly, as prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, also saw his popularity plummet, with those satisfied with his work going from 36% to 30%, and those dissatisfied with him rising from 61% to 67%.

While a decrease in popularity is commonplace after a year in office, the speed at which Hollande lost positive opinions is unparalleled. This is principally due to the fact that the electorate did not grant the incoming president a lenient honeymoon period. Taking office in the midst of an economic crisis, Hollande was thrown into the deep end immediately, and arguably failed to ingratiate himself with an electorate clamouring for immediate and effective action in areas such as employment and growth. Moreover, owing to the heterogeneous nature of his electoral support base, brought together in order to present a broad and united front against the right, Hollande’s electoral support base for the winning second round of the presidential election was heterogeneous in nature, aligning allies from the PS with those from the far left, as well as more centrist social democrats. In time, as is characteristic of the pluralist and fragmented French left, Hollande’s popularity has suffered from the defection of support, as those who voted for him turn back towards their own party.

Areas of success

While Hollande struggles to contend with an unfavourable economic conjuncture, his government has nevertheless achieved important reforms, not least of all in social matters. Thus, after months of heated debate and public protests, the contentious bill allowing homosexual couples to marry was passed on April 23 2013. In addition, committed to the rights of women and to achieving gender parity and political, economic and social equality for women and men, this administration endowed itself with a strong and effective Ministry for Women’s Rights, headed by the spokesperson for the government, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. Largely owing to Vallaud-Belkacem’s dynamism, the ministry’s promises to eradicate violence and discrimination against women have largely been held, with laws passed targeting sexual harassment, as well as extending access to free contraception for young women and the reimbursement of abortions. Thus, Hollande’s presidency already features undeniable achievements, many of which have been eclipsed by negative press on economic matters. In this way, despite progressive social measures being enacted, the predominant representation of this first year in office is of an over-prioritisation of less important social matters over those urgently needed to tackle the country’s dire economic situation.

Some credit was nevertheless afforded Hollande in another, perhaps more surprising area. Indeed, foreign policy remains one of the areas in which Hollande’s presidency has fared relatively well. In particular, two theatres of foreign involvement stand out as illustrative of Hollande’s capacity as representative of the French state abroad. In a first instance, France set itself apart as a leading actor in the heterogeneous but nonetheless concerted efforts by the international community to find a way out of the ongoing quagmire in Syria. Indeed, France was the first country to provide humanitarian aid to local revolutionary committees in the aim of bolstering. It was also the joint first, with the United-Kingdom, to consider the unilateral delivery of weapons to opposition movements in Syria. Secondly, France’s involvement in Mali was crowned with some success. Indeed, one of the fears concerned the possibility of becoming embroiled in an interminable conflict, akin to France’s involvement in Afghanistan, which lasted over a decade, was alleviated when Hollande began to withdraw troops from the country as easily as April 2013. Nonetheless, the cost of France’s involvement has not been negligible, with 6 soldiers dead, and the constant threat of a resurgence of violence in an as yet politically unstable country.

Ultimately, however, the seemingly intractable nature of the Syrian conflict, in addition to the continued lack of concrete advancements in other key foreign policy areas, serve to mitigate some of the president’s success in this area. Most notably, Hollande’s vote to admit Palestine to the United Nations General Assembly as a member state in November 2012, which had featured in his electoral campaign manifesto [8], yielded no practical results towards the resolution of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Additionally, the absence of concrete advances on the issue of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities continues to undermine Hollande’s position that “the gravest of today’s uncertainties is linked to the risk of nuclear proliferation” and that it would be unacceptable for Iran to acquire nuclear capabilities [9]. Overall, then, while Hollande’s track record in matters of foreign policy – a domain in which he was not predicted to shine – features some undeniable accomplishments, the lack of concrete contributions on Middle-Easter issues might yet indicate a gradual loss of French pre-eminence in some of the defining foreign policy issues of the decade.

Conclusion

François Hollande’s first year in office has been characterised by crises and contrasts and, as he begins the second of his five years in office, the outlook remains grim. France re-entered recession at the beginning of the year, its second in four years, and projected growth for the year is poor. Together, this entails France will not meet its objective of bringing the budget deficit under the EU’s 3% ceiling in 2013. Instead, the government has now confessed that meeting the EU target will require a further two years. Nevertheless, July 2013 saw the unpopular president’s approval increase slightly and stabilise at around 30%. This development is indicative of a waning of discontent over the radical social reforms instituted in the spring, and not least of all the opening of marriage to homosexual couples, as well as a shift in perception that the government has reprioritised matters of employment, economy and growth.

Like many other areas where resolution current remains elusive, the key to curbing France’s unemployment crisis seems to rest in Hollande’s capacity to accommodate and reconcile three imperatives: economic competitiveness, welfare reform and social justice, while balancing the books. Overall, the current government is unlikely to veer from its reformist tendency and, with the parliamentary debate docket already very full, 2013 will feature numerous important policy reforms. Nevertheless, to redress the current path, much rests on Hollande’s capacity to bridge the gap between the traditional PS rhetoric on redistribution and a clear and coherent supply-side position sensitive to the need for investment and growth.

[1] “Hollande réforme à marche forcée”. Le Parisien. 02/07/2013. Available at: http://www.leparisien.fr/espace-premium/actu/hollande-reforme-a-marche-forcee-02-07-2013-2946283.php [2] “L’Agenda du Changement”. Parti Socialist. 04/04/2012. Available at: http://www.parti-socialiste.fr/static/16347/telechargez-l-agenda-du-changement-214636.pdf [3] Ibid. [4] Renaud Thillaye (2013) François Hollande After One Year: The Silent Reformer or Lost in Reform?, Policy Network: London. [5] “ArcellorMittal: la stele évoquant la “trahison” de Hollande retiree par la mairie”. The Huffington Post. 24/04/2013. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.fr/2013/04/24/stele-memoire-promesses-non-tenues-hollande-florange_n_3144873.html [6] Clément Martel (06/05/2013) “La presse internationale juge la première année de François Hollande à l’Elysée”, FranceTVinfo. Available at: http://www.francetvinfo.fr/monde/afrique/la-presse-internationale-juge-la-premiere-annee-de-francois-hollande-a-l-elysee_316853.html [7] “Baromètre President”. Le Journal du Dimanche, 20/04/13. available at: http://cdn-lejdd.ladmedia.fr/var/lejdd/storage/images/media/images/montage-barometre-president/8906476-1-fre-FR/montage-barometre-president.jpg [8] Proposition n°59 of François Hollande’s electoral campaign included the promise to “support the international recognition of a Palestinian state”. Available at: http://www.bilanduchangement.fr/propositions-campagne.html-proposition-59 [9] “Hollande: “la plus grave des incertitudes tient à la prolifération nucléaire”. Le Point. 27/08/2012. Available at: http://www.lepoint.fr/monde/hollande-la-plus-grave-des-incertitudes-tient-a-la-proliferation-nucleaire-27-08-2012-1499712_24.php

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