Now, a French Spring?
Less than one year after François Hollande’s election as president and the stunning victory of his socialist supporters at the National Assembly, there is a widespread feeling in France that his administration is doomed. According to the latest poll released by Journal du Dimanche on April 21, 74% of the French now entertain bad opinions about Hollande as president, whereas only 25% still support him. These represent the worst figures ever for a head of state at the same point in his mandate since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958.
The French media wonder whether such discontent may lead to a constitutional crisis -- or even a revolution. A French Spring. "Is this 1789?" asked Le Point, a right-of-center magazine. This is a reference to the Great Revolution of 1789 that terminated the Old Regime not just in France, but all over continental Europe. Le Point’s cover featured Hollande as Louis XVI, with a white wig and surrounded by bloodthirsty sans-culottes.
Le Nouvel Observateur, a left-wing magazine, offered a different yet equally ominous parallel: "Are the 1930s back?" The 1930s were a time for both left-wing and right-wing revolutions in Europe: Stalin-style communism on one hand, Fascism and Nazism on the other hand. In France, it materialized in right-wing riots in 1934, in a Popular Front electoral victory in 1936, and finally -- after a crushing military defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany in 1940 -- in a far right dictatorship: the Vichy regime.
L’Express, a left-of-center magazine, devoted its cover to "an imploding Left." The point is that the Left should currently be, in classic democratic terms, fully equipped to shape current French politics at will. In addition to the presidency and the National Assembly, it holds a majority in the Senate, the regional assemblies, and most municipalities, either alone or together with its left-wing allies the Green party and the neocommunist Left Front. But its actual grip over the country, or its ability to pass legislation, is dwindling.
Why so much bad luck? First and foremost, there is the personal factor: Hollande has no charisma whatsoever. He was elected against the unpopular outgoing conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy, rather than on his own merit or on his escapist, loony Left platform. He used to be pudgy; he is now flabby. He does not know how to dress -- a deadly detail by French standards. He is a poor orator, due both to a high, pinched voice and to a shabby command of the French language and French literary classics.
His private life cannot be turned into an asset either: he lived for decades with Ségolène Royal, another socialist politician (who actually ran as a much more charismatic presidential candidate of the Left against Sarkozy in 2007) and fathered her four children, but did not marry her. He now lives, still unmarried, with a rather unmanageable journalist, Valerie Trierweiler. The French have always expected their leaders, until now, to be sexually active, but at the same time to pay lip service to traditional mores, which two presidents before Hollande -- François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac -- knew very well. Mitterrand, a socialist, never divorced his wife Danielle, turned his mistress Anne Pingeot into an almost official "second wife," and Mazarine Pingeot, his daughter out of wedlock, into a princess of the blood (with Danielle’s explicit consent). Chirac had scores of mistresses -- from movie stars to journalists -- but remained loyal if not exactly faithful to his wife Bernadette.
What should be taken as Hollande’s real qualities, and might have carried much weight in America -- his modesty, his sincerity, and his real courage in extremely touchy issues -- is ironically seen in France as further evidence of his weakness.
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.
Something as cosmic as the 1789 Revolution may not be in the making. But what about one of the minor revolutions the French have been so prone to? From the storming of the Bastille to the foundation of a lasting republic in the 1870s, there were no less than eight "minor" revolutions in France: the country switched every ten or twenty years, almost like a pendulum, from one dynasty to another, from one political system to another, and from liberty to tyranny and back.
The Third Republic -- from 1870 to 1940 -- was a more stable regime. Still, it was challenged at least two times, in the late 1880s and in the 1930s, and it collapsed instantly in 1940. The postwar Fourth Republic lasted thirteen years: its transition to De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic in 1958 was engineered through a military coup in Algeria, then a French overseas province.
The Fifth Republic itself almost collapsed ten years later, during the 1968 "Students Revolution." It survived, but faced in the ensuing decades, at regular intervals, protracted strikes or protests. A mass protest for school freedom almost finished François Mitterrand’s socialist administration in 1984. Eleven years later, large scale strikes emasculated the Chirac conservative administration and postponed much needed reforms by twenty years.
Will the present multifaceted unrest coalesce into a similarly patterned crisis, or just melt away? Can it stir similar movements throughout Europe, as was so often the case in the past? Are we talking, at the end of the day, of mere cabinet reshuffles, or new elections, or a referendum on reforms -- or is democracy itself imperiled? My guess is that a lot will depend on the most basic and most unpredictable factor in human affairs: the weather. A rainy spring or a sunny one may affect street protests and demonstrations. And change the face of Europe either way.