Thursday, March 28, 2013

Hollande's Apologia pro vita sua

François Hollande sparred with David Pujadas for an hour and fifteen minutes today. I watched the whole thing but spent most of the time wondering why I don't feel more enthusiasm for this president who certainly knows his dossiers, who is quite capable of mounting a vigorous defense of his actions to date, which are more substantial than I might have given him credit for, and yet who somehow fails to convince me that he is the man to get the job done.

He claims to know where he's headed: toward growth, toward a smaller and more nearly balanced state budget, and toward a more competitive France, thanks mainly to a series of labor market reforms and tax reductions. But no one can promise growth, and he gave no analysis of what he thinks has sapped French growth in recent years. One has to divine that analysis from the nature of his proposed reforms, and when one does that, the result is that there is not much difference between his analysis and Sarkozy's, except that the latter owned his neoliberalism, while Hollande is forced to disguise his by reinstating the 75% tax on high salaries, already rejected by the Conseil Constitutionnel in the form of an income tax, but now reborn in the form of a corporate surtax. This is a pointless symbolic measure, which muddies the waters and only reinforces the "anti-business" canard that has been raised against him.

Hollande will also end universal family allocations, adjusting allocations by income. This is a good move. He will extend the period of pension contributions, after denouncing the Right for doing the same. He will pull most French troops out of Mali, because their mission has been accomplished. He will not cut the defense budget, because this is essential to France's "national autonomy."

So much for the substance. What about the form? I think Hollande was ill-served by his PR people (if in fact they chose or approved the venue). He should have taken advantage of the impressive surroundings of the Elysée. On this garish TV set of blue and white lozenges, he looked like a game show participant opposite a quizmaster. Pujadas was more pointed than usual in his questions, and Hollande was quick enough and well enough organized in his answers.

Yet something in this president's personality fails to pass through the TV screen, at least to my eyes. Pujadas pressed him at both the beginning and end of the interview about his supposed lack of "authority." I'm not sure that "authority" is the right word. But he does lack a certain rapport with the camera and a certain gift for using the medium to advantage. This needn't be an inevitable flaw in a president. I don't think Chirac was very good at television either. But it does limit the usefulness of television as a means of escaping from a difficult pass, and Hollande right now finds himself in a very difficult pass. If there were other levers of power he could pull, his failure to master TV wouldn't matter, but I'm not sure how much leverage he has with parliament or the bureaucracy or the principal actors of civil society. With this bid to turn things around, he seemed to be acknowledging that nothing else was working, so why not wager everything on this televised hour? If that was the calculation, I don't think it worked. But I hope I'm wrong. There is still a long way to go in this quinquennat.