FLORANGE, FRANCE – The freshly cut inscription on the marble “tombstone” was savage and to the point: “Betrayal! Here lie the promises of F. Hollande which were made to workers and their families in Florange on 24 February 2012. From the steelworkers of Lorraine.” With barely suppressed anger and bitterness, Frederic Weber, a local union official, explained why it was sitting in his office: “When Francois Hollande was campaigning for the presidency, he said to me: ‘I will be the president of change.’ He came to Florange and he said that he would fight a war against the kind of finance that closed our steelworks. But he has bowed down before the markets and screwed the workers instead.”
Few countries do gesture politics with as much panache as the French. But the anger in recent weeks in this picturesque corner of north-eastern France, close to the German border, was palpable. After hundreds of years of steel production in the region, the famous blast furnaces of Florange were shut down for good April 24 by their billionaire owner Lakshmi Mittal.
The long passionate campaign against their closure, enthusiastically backed by Hollande before he won the presidential election a year ago, was over.
In the autumn, as time ran out for the plant, there was a suggestion that the new man in the Elysee would nationalize it rather than let the town’s steel-producing tradition die. That did not happen. Instead, the steelworkers of Lorraine became the latest section of the French population to become bitterly disillusioned with Hollande.
All in all, this has been some inaugural year in office for France’s first left-wing president in nearly two decades. Hollande is sometimes criticize for a “Hamlet”-like tendency to hesitate and, as with the Prince of Denmark, his sorrows have come not as single spies but in battalions which have arrived in Paris with ominous frequency.
Gerard Depardieu has taken Russian citizenship and left the country, in protest at a proposed 75 percent tax rate on those earning €1 million or more. Peugeot-Citroen, the second-biggest carmaker in Europe, has announced its intention to close its plant in the Paris suburb of Aulnay — the first French car factory to shut down in 20 years. The new president, once hailed as a sober “Mr Normal,” in contrast to the bling-focused excesses of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, has found himself embroiled in a highly embarrassing public feud between the Socialist politician and mother of his children, Segolene Royal, and his current partner, Valerie Trierweiler.
Unemployment reached a record high last week and is up 11.5 percent from this time last year. Growth continues to flatline. The passing of a bill to legalize gay marriage and adoption split the country. And in a public relations disaster of staggering proportions for a government committed to cleaning up politics, the former French budget minister, Jerome Cahuzac, confessed to squirrelling away millions of euros in a secret Swiss bank account to avoid tax. No wonder Hollande apparently told aides that his presidency resembled a “toboggan ride.” In fact, the sheer speed of his downhill trajectory in the polls has become a source of wonder to academic specialists.
“We have all been amazed by the extent of the fall in his approval ratings,” said Bruno Cautres, a lecturer at Sciences Po, Paris’s elite college devoted to political studies. “To go in less than a year from 65 percent approval to just 25 percent is remarkable.” Hollande is already more unpopular than Sarkozy ever was. Indeed, he has the worst poll ratings of any president of the Fifth Republic, which dates back to 1958.
“When you are on the left it’s dangerous to sell dreams to voters at a time of economic crisis,” says Cautres. “Hollande did not make it easy for himself by the way he ran his campaign. He said that his enemy was high finance and that it was going to be possible to combine budgetary rigour with social justice. Then he found himself putting up taxes and cutting public spending. It doesn’t look like your enemy is high finance then.”
Sylvain Courage, the political editor of current affairs magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, agrees that, in seeking an emollient tone and reserving harsh rhetoric only for the very rich, Hollande paved the way for a savage backlash from voters. As France stagnates, swaths of the electorate now feel they were sold a pup: “At the beginning some of his advisers were telling him to take the Churchillian approach — you know, this is going to take ‘blood, sweat and tears’ to turn the economy round. But Hollande didn’t want to be aggressive or alarmist like that.”
After he was elected, he even told his prime minister (Jean-Marc Ayrault) not to be too gloomy in his first policy speech and then went on holiday. Then when the terrible growth forecasts came in and the mass layoffs in industry began, he was caught off-balance and has been struggling to catch up ever since.”
Hollande certainly has his flaws. A deliberately unassuming style of leadership has allowed factions to flourish and, at times, confusion to reign. In deliberately avoiding the hyperactive approach to the presidency that characterized the Sarkozy years, he has often appeared too laid back, humble and sanguine for his own good.
Traits perceived as virtues when Hollande was running against Sarkozy are now seen as vices. In a television interview following the disastrous Cahuzac affair, the president of the republic referred somewhat quaintly to his “box of tools” for dealing with the economic crisis. In subsequent lampoonings he was cruelly compared to a plumber dealing with a tsunami.
Voters may have hated Sarkozy’s brash, brazen style, but many are also coming to loathe his successor’s seeming inability to put on any kind of show in the nation’s hour of need. A belated display of presidential force, in the wake of Cahuzac’s dramatic confession, when Hollande forced ministers to disclose their assets, failed to alter the impression of a man at the mercy of events. Hollande’s current nickname in the corridors of the Elysee — pepere, or “grandpa” — says it all.
“The French are contradictory about leadership,” says Courage. “They defy all kinds of authorities and yet at the same time they crave authority. We have killed our kings and yet we are looking for a king.”
In truth, though, when seeking an explanation for this vertiginous fall from grace it is “the economy, stupid,” which provides the answer. And when it comes to France’s current economic woes, Angela Merkel may carry almost as much responsibility as her reluctant ally across the Rhine.
In May 2012, days after being elected, a plane carrying Hollande to Berlin, and a first visit with Angela Merkel, was struck by lightning and forced to turn back. The new president finally made it later that day, but as bad omens go, this one was on the money.
One of the central pledges of Hollande’s presidential campaign was a commitment to “renegotiate” the German-led European stability pact. Conceived as the eurozone stumbled from crisis to crisis, the pact inaugurated an era of deficit reduction and austerity that has all but flattened some economies, and even spelt trouble in countries such as the Netherlands.
Renegotiation and a greater emphasis on growth and investment would have given the fledgling socialist administration — the first major socialist government to be elected in the eurozone since the financial crisis struck in 2008 — some breathing space. But Hollande didn’t even come close to getting his way.
Germany, having guaranteed the bailouts of eurozone countries overwhelmed by debt, called the tune, and the EU’s centre-right governments had already signed up to a policy of austerity. “Hollande didn’t even try,” says Courage. “When he got in front of Merkel, he just saw there was no point.”
Ever since, Hollande has labored under the suffocating constraints of a draconian economic program designed to reduce France’s budget deficit to 3 percent of GDP this year. He tends to prefer the word “rigour” to “austerity.” But nobody has been fooled by that. With growth negligible, the government is well off track and a further €5 billion in cuts now has to be found. Hollande has started to talk of making “courageous choices.” His critics take a rather different view.
The left has denounced a rise in VAT which will hit the poor hardest, citing Hollande’s opposition to the same move by Sarkozy. “Why won’t a ‘left-wing’ rise in VAT have the same (negative) effect as a ‘right-wing’ one?” Le Monde Diplomatique recently asked in a coruscating attack on Hollande’s “social-defeatism.”
The “competitiveness and jobs agreement,” allowing firms to extend working hours, lower salaries and move workers more easily from site to site, has also been condemned as an assault on hard-won workers’ rights. And Hollande’s mooted cuts to pensions entitlements is a toxic row waiting to happen.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the social spectrum, the Depardieu affair was just one in a series of confrontations for a president who unwisely admitted to not liking the rich very much. Bernard Arnault, the head of the luxury goods giant LVMH, eventually withdrew a bid for Belgian citizenship, denying that he was seeking to avoid the 75 percent tax rate. But the acrimony surrounding the supertax was summed up by a Liberation front page, urging Arnault to “F—- off, rich idiot!” Ruled unconstitutional by France’s top court, the tax has now become a levy on employers paying salaries over €1 million, but the rows surrounding it go on.
According to Pierre Gattaz, a businessman touted as a possible future head of Medef, the French equivalent of the CBI: “This class warfare has to stop.”
So what now? A year into his five-year term, Hollande has admitted that he did not anticipate that the crisis “would last as long as it has, longer than expected.” But, in characteristically reassuring mode during a recent interview, he also insisted that the labor market reforms and budgetary discipline he had put in place would allow France to turn the corner. Within Ayrault’s government, others are not so sure. On the left of the Socialist Party, influential ministers such as Arnaud Montebourg and Benoit Hamon are lobbying for an abandonment of the austerity which has so overshadowed this desperate first year in power.
“Only Merkel, supported by a few northern countries, believes it is working,” Hamon said. “And Germany is the only country now that proposes austerity when it’s clear there is no prospect of European unemployment rates going down. We have to finish with the politics of austerity in Europe. It’s moving that way, and Francois Hollande is part of this movement.
“We have to accept that this will cause political tension with the Germans and cause political differences. The wave of opinion against austerity is in the majority now among leaders and economists.”
In Florange, which was at the heart of the postwar coal and steel agreement between France and Germany that was the precursor to the European Union, there would be loud assent to that statement.
“This government could have made a stand on behalf of the other Europe, where youngsters are deserting Spain to look for work and where they’ll soon be deserting France too,” said Frederic Weber. “They were elected on promises and hopes. Why did they allow us to hope if they hadn’t got the courage to stand up to finance and the demands of the Germans? Hollande needs to remember that, if the left doesn’t make that stand, behind it there is the extreme right, the extreme nationalists. Do we really want everything to unravel and for the borders of Europe to close again? Francois Hollande needs to start being a leader.”