Monday, May 6, 2013

The French Are Pessimists

Right, so what else is new:
Ce constat rend d'autant plus étonnant l'extrême pessimisme des Français. En moyenne, 92 % des Européens ont un sentiment négatif sur l'avenir de leur pays ou sur le sort de leurs concitoyens. Dans l'Hexagone, 97 % des ménages voient les choses en noir. Davantage que les Espagnols (94 %) ou les Italiens (91 %). Surtout, 85 % des Français pensent que les choses ne feront que s'aggraver dans l'année à venir, contre 75 % des Européens.
Of course, what's striking here is how pessimistic all of Europe is. The French, as is their wont, are overdoing it a bit, but there aren't many hopeful economic signs in Europe, so these results are hardly surprising.

A Ten-Year Plan

No doubt the echo of Soviet practice is unintentional, but François Hollande has announced a "ten-year plan" for public investment. The chosen targets are the correct ones: Hollande is calling for more investment in digital technology, green energy, health, infrastructure, and "broadly speaking, new technologies." This is exactly the right focus. Instead of futilely defending declining industries with global overcapacity such as automobiles, steel, shipbuilding, and textiles (as Arnaud Montebourg has been doing with all too much fanfare), Hollande is recognizing where France's future opportunities lie. This is all to the good.

The method, however, leaves something to be desired. It is characteristic of Hollande's style of governing. No doubt he wants to underscore that under him, the prime minister is no mere "collaborator" but in fact the prime mover in the development of policy positions. He is trying to restore the old equilibrium between PM and president under the Fifth Republic. But his way of doing this is repeatedly to announce that, in a few weeks, the PM will be telling you what the policy of this government actually is.

The result of this division of labor is to leave the president looking like a vague and vaporous usine à gaz. And by the time the details of the proposal dribble out, the public has lost interest, or forgets to credit the president for actually backing the initiative. The proper way to manage this sort of balance is for the government to elaborate the details of its policy and then for the president to make the announcement when the plans are finally mature. He should appear with the PM and other relevant ministers at his side. He should make it clear that he is leading the process and driving reform. But he should not be speaking in a void. At least that's how I see it.

The Party Leader Prefigured the President

The thought has occurred to many: François Hollande as president is in many ways similar to François Hollande as party leader. His authority is doubted, his ability to enunciate a clear line through a thicket of incompatible positions is questioned, his dexterity is admired yet his rivals believe that, when the moment comes, they can easily sweep him aside, and while he presides over a constantly bickering yet never quite disintegrating coalition, the party drifts and never develops a distinctive response to Sarkozy's neoliberalism. Médiapart has now elaborated this analysis in a new article, which contains this paragraphe assassin:
À la tête du parti, Hollande est apprécié par les militants, mais surtout pour ses blagues, rarement pour des discours marquants. Il est en revanche constamment contesté, voire méprisé, par le reste des cadres et hiérarques du parti. Frontalement par l’aile gauche, puis par les fabiusiens. Plus secrètement par les strauss-kahniens. Parmi les responsables socialistes, son autorité ne lui aura jamais été reconnue. Mais il aura profité de son art de la synthèse (qu’il magnifiera lors du congrès du Mans, en 2005, rassemblant de façon factice un parti fracturé par le référendum européen).
The article is worth reading in full. It crystallizes the increasingly insistent murmurs on the left that the Hollande presidency is going to end in disaster. Of course, it's wise to keep in mind that no situation is ever hopeless, especially in politics, where the weather changes daily. But insofar as leadership style is deeply embedded in the leader's character, it seems unlikely that Hollande is going to find the wherewithal to rescue himself.

Characteristically, he is waiting for events to turn his way. No doubt his greatest hope is that the German elections will break the European logjam, although it is not easy to see how that will happen, even if Mrs. Merkel is forced into a grand coalition with the SDP. The problem is that the German Social Democrats do not see eye-to-eye with their French counterparts. They are constrained by their electoral base, which remains as fiercely opposed to useful measures such as mutualization of the European debt and effective banking regulation as their conservative opponents.

Still, the Germans may feel, after the immediate threat of rejection at the polls is removed, that the European situation requires them to make further accommodation, however unpopular, as the least bad among the alternatives. If that is Hollande's hope and calculation, it is unlikely to alter the image he has projected as a weak leader, even if he turns out to be correct. And the best to be hoped for if everything goes just right is a weak recovery from a prolonged period of low-level depression (psychological as well as economic), which is unlikely to propel the Socialists toward victory in 2017.