|It is difficult to exaggerate the parlous state in which François Hollande and the left-wing government in France find themselves shortly after the rentrée politique. Whilst it was abundantly clearly that Hollande’s job after his victory in May 2012 would not be an easy one, the most pessimistic of commentators would have been hard pressed to give a realistic forecast of the depth of the problem before half his mandate had elapsed. Media commentators have described a triple whammy – a weakened Parliamentary majority, a poor economic outlook, and embarrassing personal revelations – weighing on the president. The revelations in Valérie Trierweiler’s book are largely a distraction, and simply provide additional column inches on Hollande’s tribulations. The failure of his government to build a sustainable recovery of the economy, with the budget deficit still some 0.5% above the EU requirement, and GDP growth languishing at 0.8% this year, or of the president himself to deliver on demonstrating to Europe – and to Germany in particular – the possibility of ‘another way’ out of crisis other than austerity, are the main drivers of a 13% approval rating which is far and away the worst rating of any Fifth Republic President.|
As Pascal Perrineau has observed, the traditional relationship of presidential popularity dominating that of his Prime Minister has been turned on its head. Even for Jacques Chirac, any slight popularity advantage which either Jean-Pierre Raffarin or Dominique de Villepin enjoyed in the first year of their Premiership soon evaporated. For Sarkozy in the last three years of his presidency, François Fillon exceeded him substantially. Similarly, Jean-Marc Ayrault and now Manuel Valls stand well above Hollande in popularity, Valls’ own 14-point plunge to 30% positive ratings notwithstanding. The personalisation of executive leadership, and particularly of failure in the domestic arena, places blame at the presidential door. To adapt Mike Lewis-Beck’s phrase, voters no longer answer the question ‘who’s the chef?’ by policy domain – presidents pick up both the domestic leader and statesman tabs.
Hollande and Valls popularity
Source: TNS-SOFRES Barometer
As a signpost, the popularity rating is deeply symbolic of the impossible situation Hollande and Valls find themselves in. Whilst moving their government further to the centre entrenches divisions in their own party and breaks promises made through Le Changement c’est maintenant, moving left to assuage dissent would both endorse the rebels’ position and at the same time prove unworkable faced with the structural demands of the French economy and EU strictures. The rebellion of the left wing of the Socialist party, led by former Minister for Industrial Renewal Arnaud Montebourg, and including Aurélie Filipetti and Benoît Hamon from the first Valls government, challenged the continued policy of austerity which the government has pursued to reduce the budget deficit and kick-start growth, albeit ineffectually. Effectively challenging the policy of his own Ministry, Montebourg’s sacking forced Valls 2 not only to distance itself from the left wing of the party but to publicly shift further towards a social-liberal centre. This was epitomised by the Responsibility Pact and promises of substantial tax breaks for employers, and by the pro-business positions taken by the Prime Minister at the MEDEF’s summer school last August.
On Tuesday, Valls narrowly won his vote of confidence by 269 votes to 244, as compared with 306 votes five months earlier, showing growing discontent from within the ranks of the PS. Valls received support from the vast majority of the PS group and their PRG partners, but no fewer than 31 ‘rebel’ socialist MPs abstained (compared with 11 in April) meaning that the government does not have an absolute majority,a symbolic first since Georges Pompidou in 1962. More significantly perhaps, most of the Greens joined the socialist frondeurs in abstaining this time around, whereas a number of them had chosen to support the government against the anti-Valls line of Cécile Duflot five months ago. The majority of the Communists on the other hand reiterated their vote against the government, a position consistent with the competitive position that the Front de Gauche has tried to uphold as a force opposing Hollande’s social-liberal turn –without much success, though, considering the party’s poor showing in the European elections at only 6.3 % of the vote.
The appointment of Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker, to head up Montebourg’s former ministry alongside Michel Sapin in the Ministère de l’Economie, evokes a technocratic response to French economic woes, and potentially an iconoclastic one – witness Macron’s indication that the 35-hour working week, sacrosanct to the left since its introduction by Jospin’s gauche plurielle government in 2000 and only tweaked by even Sarkozy’s government, might not be untouchable. Denied by Valls, the intention may simply have been to indicate a willingness to take tough decisions. But, for a party for whom symbolic legislation such as the formalisation of rent controls, worked up by Green Housing Minister Cécile Duflot prior to her resignation due to Valls’ investiture, is fair game for rejection, such a collapse of redistributive policies from their own government has been crushing. The government tries to offset bad economic news with sops to its left flank, but these remain unconvincing. For example, the news that pensions would not be revalued to offset inflation has been contradicted by Valls but the terms of the benefit are unclear.
For the Socialist Party, the effect has also been significant on confidence amongst the regional branches, and on membership. Before the summer, the Party’s General Secretary, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, estimated the loss of 25,000 members – around 10% – in the past two years. That figure can only have increased significantly since the cabinet reshuffle. The party is well aware of the importance of grass-roots support and local powerbases. It is no coincidence, for example, that Marie-Arlette Carlotti was shown the door from her ministerial position after her loss, and the broader Socialist rout, in Marseilles six months previously. The reshuffle presented a discreet means of moving a delegitimised politician out. The departure of Thomas Thévenoud from the trade portfolio after a record nine days, subsequent to revelations about non-declaration of income, simply reinforces the sense of a struggling party and a government out of control. Valls himself has reportedly indicated that he knows, should things not change in the next three to six months, the game’s up.
Amongst the radical parties, demands have of course been for the dissolution of the Parliament, the resignation of the President, and even the dissolution of the Fifth Republic itself. The UMP opposition has been more divided on early elections , not least because their own lack of mandated party leader would not serve well in elections against the FN or indeed the centrist UDI. Empowered by the troubles of the two flanking blocs, this latter has rejected any suggestions of federation or merger, not least given the likely fragmentation of the Moderate Right between Alain Juppé, François Fillon and Nicolas Sarkozy. Much will depend on whether Sarkozy is able to assume control once more of the party he turned into his personal powerbase, and the willingness of his apparent successors to stand aside. Taking control of the UMP would give Sarkozy a clear advantage in the presidential nomination race in 2017. Three obstacles stand in the way of the former president, however: first, his election as party leader may not repeat the 2004 plebiscite whereby he won the presidency with 85 per cent of the vote; second, the party has become a mere shadow of its former self, through leadership crisis, factional struggle and a number of financial scandals, meaning that Sarkozy’s presidential bid might be impeded by the necessity to manage a party in deep disarray; finally, Sarkozy is still facing ongoing corruption investigations whose outcome might eventually decide his political fate.
Similarly, many on the Right see Hollande’s resignation as a solution that would prevent further destabilisation of the political and economic system, but as Henri Guaino, the Yvelines deputy, has identified, this is not a solution which his party can constitutionally demand. Perversely, dissolution and the subsequent defeat of the Socialists in a legislative election would then likely result in the reinstatement of cohabitation – what the reduction in the presidential term and rearrangement of the electoral calendar was precisely designed to avoid. What was designed to strengthen presidential power has, in the face of relative presidential weakness, potentially accelerated its demise. A president elected to moderate the domineering presidential style of his predecessor has gone too far the other way and weakened the institution through his ineffectiveness.
So, for now, the shift of the government to a more centrist position may secure the government’s position by offering legislation which the UDI and other more moderate members of the Right can support, albeit reluctantly. In April, the government’s stability programme only received support from three centrist MPs and one member of the conservative UMP, hardly compensating the 41 abstentions by dissident socialists protesting against Hollande’s pro-business reorientation. In the short term, ad-hoc alliances with the centre-right could shore up support and ensure the survival of the executive to 2017. In the long term, however, the effect on grass-roots support will be devastating, as a betrayal of their ideological support. The 2014 elections have already signified a revolt of the masses, as Hollande’s ”toothless” (sans-dents) continued to desert the ranks of the socialists. Polls showed a clear accentuation in electoral shifts to the FN by blue collar and lower-salariat voters in the last Europeans: according to IPSOS, no less than 43 per cent of workers and 38 per cent of employees supported the far right in May; only 8 and 16 per cent respectively turned to the socialists.
As the departmental and regional elections of 2015 will confirm, 2017 promises a thrashing for the Socialists. In a recent poll, even if Hollande were to make it to the second round, a scenario only likely were the UMP to field François Fillon as its candidate, he would lose – to none other than Marine Le Pen. Alarming polls certainly gave the government the opportunity to reactivate the old ‘21 April’ drama, this time raising the spectre of the FN and Marine Le Pen getting into power. They have also prompted the government to temporarily curb their policy course. In a bid to win back some of the left, Valls has announced that the government would come to the rescue of small pensioners, while promising tax cuts for large swathes of low-income families and strongly opposing the MEDEF’s proposals to eliminate the 35-hours week or cut the minimum wage, which were very opportunely leaked in the press on the eve of the confidence vote.
In addition to his other dubious titles, François Hollande has moved in the space of two years from the great hope against Sarkozy to the mainstream candidate unable to keep the FN out of the Elysée. At a time when the UMP seems to be steering unambiguously towards neoliberal economics, the national-protectionist agenda of economic redistribution endorsed by the FN since 2011 represents an even bigger challenge for a president in search of a new political path between old-fashioned French socialism and social-liberalism 2.0. Hopes that the FN would embarrass itself in local government after the municipal elections last year have been in vain. Political scandals involving FN mayors such as Fabien Engelmann in Hayange have received relatively little publicity, compared with the amount of press coverage of the FN’s vicissitudes in Toulon or Vitrolles in the late 1990s, which corroborates the increasing ‘normalization’ of the party in the eyes of a majority of the French. The spectacle of national government has proved far more watchable for most voters. All that is required of the FN over the next two years is maintain party discipline, avoid the corruption scandals which marred its previous forays into regional office, and repeat the more measured presidential campaign of 2012. Whilst victory in the presidentials is out of reach, if the mainstream Right show any strategic nous whatsoever, progression to the second round is probably guaranteed.