The French incursion in Mali has thrown commentators for a loop. Only a few weeks ago, the pundits were unanimous in declaring the Hollande presidency a failure and the president himself a well-meaning but hapless apparatchik not up to the challenges of a leadership role. Then came the "historic" and "decisive" intervention in Mali, which proved once and for all that the president was not hapless at all but rather dynamic, committed, and unafraid of doing battle wherever liberty, equality, and fraternity were at stake. So said my critics.
The revisionist history continues. Rather than a useless tactician, unable to plot a political agenda two days ahead, the president is now being hailed as a master strategist who has cleverly used the gay marriage issue to divert the Right from the social and economic terrain on which it could mount a much stronger attack. Before Mali, this good fortune might have been attributed to the benighted blindness of the homophobic right or to accidents of the legislative and movement calendars. After Mali, however, it is clear, some pundits say, that nothing less than Hollande's genius can explain his success, as measured by a splendid (!) 3-point boost in his approval rating (which, however, is markedly lower than Sarkozy's at a comparable point in his presidency).
Suffice it to say that I remain reserved. The sheer number of announced layoffs, plant closings, failed labor talks, and French industries with collapsing market share is staggering, and anger on the picket lines is rising. The unions are divided about what to do, as reflected in recent negotiations among the social partners. So it seems to me that the pundits who are now crediting Hollande with a social vision they denied him a few months ago cannot read the handwriting on the wall. There will be a warm social spring at home. Meanwhile, the Arab spring of yore is turning into a major foreign policy challenge on the shores of the Mediterranean (for which the Sarkozyan idea of "union" now seems forlorn indeed), a challenge that will soon overshadow the Malian situation that it helped to create in the first place. Indeed, it is hard to see how France can maintain a unified foreign policy toward this region of the world given the deep contrasts among the countries involved and the problematic role played by one of the major factors of unity, namely, Islam. Crafting a French response to the dissipation of the Arab spring would be a major challenge for a president more interested in playing a global policy role than Hollande strikes me as being, though he may of course evolve in this respect. But how much time will he have to devote to Africa and to the Middle East with social unrest looming in his own northwest, north, northeast, southeast, southwest, and center?
Indeed, the only thing that is going right for the moment is the euro, which has bounced back against the dollar and removed itself, thanks to Mario Draghi, from the daily list of crisis reports. But this, too, is a false dawn. So, unlike the several commentators who agree in chiding me for my pessimism because at long last, they argue, some things are going well in France, I see very little that is going well. And I say this not because I dislike Hollande or think that he is less competent for the job than anyone else I could name. It's rather that the challenges are tremendous and the constraints, as I read them, nearly insuperable.