By a strange coincidence, at the very moment a few days ago when David Cameron was attacking François Hollande as a hopelessly out-of-date socialist, the French President was attempting to reinvent himself as a modern, pro-business reformer.
Cameron’s purpose in attacking Hollande, whom he did not name, was to warn that a government led by Ed Miliband would do grave damage. For British Conservatives, France since Hollande’s election victory in May 2012 has served as a cautionary tale. As Cameron put it on New Year’s Day in a piece for The Times:
“If you doubt how disastrous a return to Labour-style economics would be, just look at countries that are currently following that approach. They face increasing unemployment, industrial stagnation and enterprise in free fall.”
Miliband was an early and ardent admirer of Hollande, and the first senior British politician to visit him at the Elysée Palace. In July 2012, the British Labour leader went to Paris and asserted after meeting the new French President that “the tide is turning on austerity economics” and there had to be a new way forward:
“What President Hollande is seeking to do in France and what he is seeking to do in leading the debate in Europe is to find that different way forward. We are in agreement in seeking that new way. There was an old set of solutions, what I call Camerkozy formula – Cameron, Merkel, Sarkozy – and austerity. I don’t think those solutions are working.”
What wasn’t working turned out to be Hollande’s economic policy. He took the unfashionable decision to deal with the French deficit by putting up taxes rather than cutting spending. This socialist version of austerity did not just hit the rich, some of whom fled a promised tax rate of 75 per cent (which in the event did not quite materialise), but the middle classes, who emitted cries of pain, and business, which responded by laying off workers. While unemployment rose, Hollande’s poll ratings fell to the lowest level of any president in the last half century.
In a poll just published in Le Parisien, only 31 per cent of respondents describe Hollande as competent, down from 46 per cent in January 2013, and a mere 26 per cent say he has the ability to take the necessary decisions, down from 48 per cent a year ago.
So in his reference to France, Cameron was more than justified in using the word “disastrous”. But on New Year’s Eve, Hollande conducted a U-turn. In his message to the French nation, which can be watched or read here, he announced a new, pro-business policy: lower labour costs, cuts in public spending in order to cut the deficit and reduce taxes, cuts also in red tape and a crackdown on abuses of the welfare system.
French commentators were not quite sure what to make of this. Le Figaro observed that it was an intelligent programme, but not a left-wing one. The obvious comparison is with François Mitterrand, who was elected President in May 1981, and after a disastrous 18 months of socialism, reached out to business and expressed indignation at the high level of taxes.
Some said Mitterrand was shameless. But one could also say that he showed an intelligent pragmatism. When something is not working, it would be stupid not to change course.
The other comparison was with Tony Blair. This fits less well: Blair acted from a position of strength, while Hollande is extremely weak, and lacks a gallic version of Margaret Thatcher whose reforms he simply has to defend against the unreformed socialists in his own ranks. A Parisian journalist of my acquaintance added that Blair had charisma, while Hollande has none.
But people still think Hollande is a nice guy: in the poll quoted above, where he did so badly in other respects, 56 per cent of people said they find him “sympathique”. His manner is wonderfully straightforward.
Blair won Middle England’s trust by annoying the socialists in his own party, and it is not inconceivable that Hollande will be able to do something similar. He could turn weakness into a strength. The French are in a humiliating position, their economic decline compared to Germany and Britain plain for all to see. The need for Hollande’s New Year reforms is becoming ever harder to deny.
And it is not as if there is anyone apart from Hollande to whom they can reputably turn. The UMP – the mainstream right – is in a most frightful mess, riven by deep factional and personal disputes. Friends of Nicolas Sarkozy, who was beaten by Hollande in 2012, are urging him to return as leader. But it is hard to imagine Sarkozy, who so often embarrassed his compatriots by behaving like a petulant teenager, as a man commanding widespread authority.
Which leaves Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National, who has sought to decontaminate that party from the anti-semitism which hung about it when it was led by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. She has had mixed success in that endeavour: anti-semitism is too deep a tradition in some parts of French society to be easily obscured, any more than passionate hostility to Muslims can be obscured. But in the municipal elections in March, the FN is expected to do well, and it will probably do even better in the European elections in May.
In October 2013 the FN horrified the mainstream parties by winning an election at Brignoles, in the Var. Le Pen, interviewed last summer by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard for the Daily Telegraph, is a formidable protest candidate, well able to express the profound feelings of insecurity aroused in so many of the French by economic decline and immigration. She wants to get rid of the euro, bring back the franc, take control of France’s borders and introduce economic protectionism. It is true that the euro has imposed a heavy cost on France, for little apparent gain. But even Le Pen’s own voters find it quite difficult to believe in her attractive simplicities.
Le Pen is impossible to ignore, but her success also inspires feelings of deep embarrassment. In September 2013, at the end of the FN’s summer school at Marseilles, she complained that “France, the mistress of the USA, has become the whore of fat-bellied emirs.” For her, the real prize is the 2017 presidential election. But it is easier to imagine her forcing the other parties to change than herself being accepted by respectable French opinion.
In the 1970s, when I began to read newspapers, French politics were reported in much greater detail in the British press than they are today. Alexander Chancellor, the editor of the Spectator, printed a piece by Sam White, the great Australian correspondent who had arrived in Paris in 1944, every few weeks. French was still the great foreign language, with French writers the first that anyone who aspired to become familiar with European culture would try to read.
I hope that Cameron, as he pours scorn on Miliband’s socialist friend Hollande, will be generous enough to hope for a French revival.