Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Wreckage of a Presidency

It hardly seems possible that François Hollande's approval rating four years ago, just after his election in 2012, stood at 65%. Yesterday the Valls government survived an attempt to file a censure motion supported by 56 Socialist frondeurs, 2 short of the required 58. The El Khomri law is now on the books, but in a form that leaves everyone unhappy: neither the reformist unions, the refractory unions, nor the patronat likes the result (although one suspects the latter of shedding crocodile tears, because a number of key provisions supported by employers are now the law of the land, including one that allows firm-level contracts to supersede branch-level contracts, which weakens worker bargaining power, and another that permits supplementary pay for overtime to be negotiated as low as a 10-percent premium over the standard wage rather than the previous 25-percent minimum premium). Ironically, Sarkozy tried to dynamize the economy by eliminating the payroll tax on overtime pay, thus encouraging overtime; Hollande seems to be trying to dynamize the economy by allowing cuts in overtime wages. Travailler plus pour gagner moins: Is it any wonder that he's in trouble?

A reader asks how Hollande--this hapless president, so seemingly inept at governing--earned his reputation as a political tactician. The answer is simple: he held the fractious Socialist Party together by papering over deep cleavages and formulating a bland consensus that hid ideological splits. This allowed the Socialist Party to expand its influence at the local and regional level--at one point it controlled 20 of 22 regions--where supposed managerial competence reaped rewards and philosophical differences about how to govern the economy did not matter. But the consensus turned out to be horribly fragile when the party took power nationally, and yesterday's censure motion marked the end of the road. The split is now consummated, even though the threat to expel the frondeurs from the party is now on hold, for fear that they would constitute a separate parliamentary group if expelled and perhaps make common cause with the Greens and the Front de Gauche. Not that it matters. The Hollande presidency is over, except for the shouting.

And there will be plenty of shouting. Mediapart reports that Macron will announce his presidential candidacy in June. The kicker is that he may be doing so with Hollande's approval and possibly connivance, or so says the often well-informed Laurent Mauduit. The theory is apparently that Macron will be a stalking horse for Hollande, who will line up support (and financing) mainly from le patronat (the "oligarchy" is Mauduit's preferred term) but eventually withdraw when Hollande announces his candidacy later this year, with the implicit promise that Macron will become his prime minister. Such a--desperate, il faut le dire--maneuver would consummate the moult of the Socialists under Hollande from party of the left into "party of modernization," modernization here being a term of art to describe the Teutonification of the economy that Hollande has been trying to achieve since day one.

By "Teutonification" I mean a policy designed to favor firms that prove themselves to be competitive at the global level. This is the significance of the emphasis on firm-level as opposed to branch-level accords in the El Khomri law. Those firms capable of building sufficient "trust" between workers and management to wrest voluntary wage-limitation and productivity-enhancing agreements will thrive; the rest will fail. If "trust" turns out to be a product of reduced worker bargaining power rather than German-style mitbestimmung, so be it: the result will be the same. The Socialist Party, as Hollande envisions it, will then reconstitute itself as a party of "winners of globalization" in alliance with minorities rebuffed by the xenophobic opposition, together with its traditional base of fonctionnaires.

The problem is that this vision of the future Socialist Party resembles the current Democratic Party in the US, but in a country where the centrist terrain of globalizing social liberals is contested by a center-right crowd (Juppé, Bayrou, et al.) that doesn't exist in the US. In Germany this problem has been solved by a working fusion of center-right and center-left in a Grand Coalition, which is itself looking increasingly fragile. Grand Coalitions are not in the French political DNA, although it is becoming less and less difficult to envision, say, a Juppé-Macron tandem (just as there was brief thought of a Royal-Bayrou tandem in 2007, and even Sarkozy flirted for a while with ouverture--remember Besson, Boeckel, Kouchner, etc.).

Whatever emerges from the current wreckage will not resemble the Socialist Party of Mitterrand and the Congrès d'Epinay. That era is over. That it dragged on for so long is largely a testimonial to François Hollande's skill as a political tactician, which delayed the final reckoning for decades. His disastrous presidency stands as proof that this postponement was a great historical error, the consequences of which will become clearer in the months ahead.