François Hollande’s popularity in the opinion polls has plunged after a disappointing first year as president of France. The chief cause is the lack of results in terms of economic growth and in containing unemployment, which, though far less than that of Spain, now affects some 10.5 percent of the active population. France has yet to see real austerity policies, and trusted in Hollande to improve employment and purchasing power. The reality shows that without growth, it is practically impossible to implement a socialist program, even of a moderate kind. This is particularly the case when the volume of public spending amounts to 57 percent of GDP, one of the highest such rates in Europe.
The French state has been acting as a shock-absorber for the hard knocks of the crisis, and its citizens refuse to accept the impotence of political power to go on playing that role. This is why Hollande raised the banner of EU growth as opposed to austerity.
But he soon came up against the wall of budgetary rigor imposed by the German consensus (not by Angela Merkel alone), which denies other countries the right to live on credit — even when it comes to a partner state as important as France. Hollande has allied himself with the new Italian government in continuing to voice the demand for an alternative to austerity, but this path is leading him to make risky moves.
The fact that prominent collaborators of Hollande have publicly used accusatory language against Germany, as if proposing to make that country the scapegoat for all the ills of France, has been causing divisions within the French government, made up of socialists and ecologists.
In the past, other presidents (Chirac and Sarkozy) likewise failed to keep their electoral promises on bringing France’s public finances back into balance. Hollande is following in their footsteps. The present government has slowly begun a process of spending reduction, but is going to have to move faster at the cost of confrontation with the parties to its left, while at the same time offering vulnerable flanks to attack from the right — which is in an equally poor position to give any lectures — and opening new doors to the extreme right.
Hollande’s political situation is a delicate one, because he also has zero results to show for his promises of higher morality and integrity in public life. He has not been able to keep his promise to raise the tax on million-euro-plus incomes to 75 percent — this having been declared unconstitutional — nor to prevent the perfidy of Jérôme Cahuzac, the minister for the fight against tax evasion, who was discovered red-handed with an account full of undeclared funds.
Hollande is a tenacious politician, as shown by the military intervention in Mali and the firmness with which he has pushed the gay marriage bill through parliament in the face of clamorous opposition from rightist and Catholic sectors. He still has four years of mandate ahead of him, in which to bring his country’s political weight to bear in the EU institutions, and to contain the internal tensions in France. Should he fail, it will be a failure not only for the left, but also a new cause of instability in the European Union.