Now, a French Spring?

During the presidential campaign last year, Hollande said he would be, if elected, a "down-to-size president." That statement was intended as a further attack on Sarkozy, who tended to be an oversized president. But it backfired so much -- you don’t elect a non-hero -- that in the final TV debate with Sarkozy he had to reassert himself as a more virile candidate, and point no less than fifteen times in 3 minutes and 21 seconds to what he would do if elected: "Moi, président de la République … ".

The trick worked. Alas, Hollande reverted, once elected, to an unassuming and thus unconvincing image. He earned, in the process, a very unflattering nickname: "Pépère" (or "Daddy-o"). "Can Pépère make it?" asked Le Point a fortnight ago, something that came quite close to sheer character assassination.

Hollande’s second problem is the economy. Most European economies (including, first and foremost, the French economy) are in recession: business is slowing down, jobs are fading away, budgets cannot be balanced. The French economy is no exception in that regard. Pierre Moscovici, the minister of finance, posits a 0.1% growth in 2013. The IMF forecasts a - 0.1% growth.  And such a situation means, in practical terms, that the average household is going to bleed.

Most European governments ascribe their present economic difficulties to the global financial crisis ushered in  by the American financial meltdown of 2008. There is some truth about that assertion. America was, since 1945, the driving force behind prosperity in the world and especially in Europe (either the Cold War Western Europe, or the post-Cold War, ever-expanding European Union). America's periodic setbacks in economic matters were thus bound to have consequences in Europe. And the 2008 American crisis had to have very important consequences.

On the other hand, the 2008 crisis also exacerbated the systemic problems or contradictions plaguing the European Union as a whole, and every single European country in particular, especially France. It bared the fact, for instance, that it is nonsense to operate as most Europeans do under a deflationary single currency -- the euro -- and keep at the same time extensive welfare state dispensations. Or to opt for an overregulated single market, run by an unelected bureaucracy unanswerable to the people -- the present European Union -- or an overregulated and overtaxed domestic economy run by an unelected statist nobility -- the "French model" -- and wonder why nobody creates companies and jobs.

Nicolas Sarkozy promised to bring France and Europe closer to the real world, but failed to deliver except for some valuable piecemeal reforms. Hollande is much more serious-minded in this regard. He insists, along with Moscovici, on a balanced budget and as many cuts as possible, and thus runs not just against the program he had campaigned for and was elected upon, but against a whole national culture of delusion.

However courageous the Hollande-Moscovici policies are, they stay unfortunately too much within the euro and EU doxa and inconsistencies, and accordingly will not or cannot bring about any improvement to the French and European economy. And unfortunately again, the French voters, either Right or Left, realize that in one way or the other. Moreover, the minister of budget, Jerôme Cahuzac, one of the best proponents of the austerity line, was found to be a tax dodger who kept an illegal bank account in Switzerland, and a perjurer who lied about it to the president, the finance minister, and the judges. Cahuzac resigned and will be tried. But the global image of the administration declined even further. Hence the present tide of disaffection about the president and by implication about the present state of French democracy.

In a desperate attempt to keep his consistuency loyal, if not happy, Hollande insists on a disastrous societal reform: same-sex mariage. Technically, both the socialist National Assembly and the socialist Senate approved it (the last National Assembly vote took place on April 23). Fifty-four percent at least of the French adamantly resist it, however, and many of those who say they approve it are not sure whether everything in the package should be so easily accepted.

Most French do not object to gays or lesbians or transgender persons living together and enjoying as such most of the benefits ascribed to regular married couples (something that, as "pacs" or civil partnership pact, was already part and parcel of French law for some years). They object, however, to same-sex couples being registered as "spouse one and spouse two." Or being automatically allowed to "share" children that, incidentally, might be produced by proxy mothers or adopted. And, in an even deeper way, they are uncomfortable about the complete blurring or blotting out of gender differences.

All in all, Hollande is facing popular protest and unrest from all sides. Both Marine Le Pen’s National Front on the far Right and Jean-Luc Mélanchon’s Left Front on the far Left ride on economic frustations, advocate secession from the European Union and from the eurozone,  and preach -- with the full oratory talent that Hollande lacks -- against the free market or globalization. At the same time, grassroots opposition to same-sex marriage (or "marriage for all," as the socialists recast it) is growing, and translating in mass demonstrations week after week.