For French President: François Hollande (With Reservations)

The French left has many deserving heroes. Jean Jaurès proved that socialism could be republican, ethical, and profoundly humane. Léon Blum continued his project, while achieving an impressive record of social reform during his so-called Popular Front government of the thirties. Pierre Mendès-France brought these ideas into the postwar era, conceptualizing a left that was compatible with a modern, technological society, even as he brought the dark chapter of France’s colonial war in Indochina to a much-needed close. After ’68, Michel Rocard made a persuasive case that the democratization of daily life was socialism’s greatest message to the modern world. And whatever their limitations (and Machiavellian ambitions), François Mitterrand and Lionel Jospin showed that socialists could govern—and that, from time to time, they could remain faithful to their core ideals.

The French left does, indeed, have many deserving heroes. I do not believe François Hollande is one of them. Yet he will likely be only the second socialist president of the Fifth Republic, and the first of the twenty-first century. All things considered, this is a good thing. For several reasons.

The best argument for voting for Hollande is that he is not Nicolas Sarkozy. At the end of the day, the 2012 election is a referendum on the incumbent. Though I almost always prefer and vote for leftist candidates, I do not think that Sarkozy’s presidency has been an unmitigated disaster. Yet France does seem to be headed in the wrong direction, for at least three reasons.

* First, France, like the United States, seems to be in the process of becoming an increasingly unequal society. According to OECD figures, income inequality measured in terms of Gini coefficients (in which “0” is a society in which wealth is distributed equally among all members, and “1” is a society in which one individual owns everything) is on the rise: the most recent figures place it at 0.293%, compared to 0.277% in the mid-nineties (this is the Gini figure after taxes and transfers; it’s worth noting that for the same period, the Gini coefficient in the US was considerably higher: 0.378%). This trend, it would seem, is encouraged by Sarkozy’s policies. He adopted a law called the “tax shield” or “bouclier fiscal” which caps the tax bill for which any French citizen is liable at 50%, which means, in practice, that the wealthiest members of French society now receive refunds from the state. The leading French economist Thomas Piketty (whose research on US income inequality has frequently been cited by the US Occupy movement) has argued that “the tax shield instituted by the current government functions in practice as a machine for subsidizing the wealthy [or rentiers—i.e., persons who live off the income of their wealth].” Furthermore (to quote one of my recent posts), “finance bills passed under Sarkozy have significantly expanded tax loopholes (‘niches fiscales’) benefitting the wealthy. According to Pinçon and Pinçon-Charlot [in their recent book, Le président des riches], their number has risen from 418 in 2003 to 486 in 2008. They quote an article by Didier Mignaud, who claims that in five years, the cost of tax loopholes rose from ‘50 to 73 billion euros. They represent, this year, 27% of the state’s revenue.’ Sarkozy has also pushed a series of measures that make it easier for the rich to hand their fortunes down to their children. Through a combination of gifts and bequeaths, affluent families can pass on some 3,700,000 tax exempt euros to their heirs.”

* Second, Sarkozy has promoted an exclusionary and antagonizing conception of French national identity. Before being elected in 2007, as France’s “law-and-order” minister of the interior, he fed national anxieties by blaming the heightened sense of insecurity felt by many French people on the country’s immigrant, Muslim population (which he once said should be cleansed from French communities, like one does with an industrial power cleaner or “kärcher”). As president, he created a “ministry of immigration, integration, and national identity”—a title which many felt was redolent of the reactionary nationalism of Vichy. The politician appointed to head the ministry—the socialist apostate Eric Besson—proceeded to launch a “debate” on national identity, asking “what does it mean to be French today?” The ensuing discussion was largely demagogic, achieving no concrete goal other than that of lending credence to the idea that citizens of immigrant origin were somehow not really French. Sarkozy invoked the French tradition of secularism or laïcité to justify a law prohibiting the wearing of the burqa in public—thus using the country’s much maligned and yet in many ways admirable, and even progressive conception of church-state relations to stigmatize French Muslims. He is now endorsing an only apparently more moderate version of the National Front’s policy of “national preference,” which would deprive immigrants of certain social benefits, notably certain kinds of unemployment insurance (Sarkozy distinguishes his position from the FN’s on the ground that he would not extend this exclusion to EU citizens). In short, Sarkozy has been willing to use a highly exclusionary conception of French national identity to tap into the country’s deepest anxieties. For reasons that are more cynical than ideological, he has sought to co-opt the far right’s program. The result of playing with this kind of political fire is evident in the results of the first round: rather than stealing votes from Marine Le Pen, he has contributed to her party achieving its best result ever in a presidential election.

* Finally, Sarkozy has undermined French democratic life. He is suspected of using his connections to billionaires to finance his electoral campaign. In particular, judges have been investigating whether Sarkozy solicited large donations from the wealthy L’Oréal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt, through the ministrations of Eric Woerth—his 2007 campaign treasurer who subsequently (and suspiciously) became his budget minister. Sarkozy is also prone to nepotism. In addition to being the only candidate in 2012 to have declined to list his conflicts of interest with the NGO Transparence Internationale France, his twenty-five-year old son, Jean, a city councilor in Paris’ western suburbs, sits on the boards of the state agencies that administer public housing in the towns of Levallois and La Défense (public housing being a notorious source of slush funds and influence peddling). Sarkozy asked Martin Bougyues, the CEO of the eponymous multinational corporation (specializing in construction, television, and telecommunications) to be the witness at his second marriage and the godfather of his younger son. Sarkozy’s older and younger brothers have extensive business interests in France’s health care industry. Moreover, Sarkozy has never hesitated to bully newspapers and television stations to meet his demands, and his been prepared to withhold state funds or useful legislation when they cross him. French political life has never been particularly ethical (Americans used to talk about how the French found the brouhaha caused by Watergate perplexing), but it seems to have reached a new low under Sarkozy’s reign.

Yet while I think the best case for voting for Hollande is negative, there are some more positive reasons as well:

* Hollande wants to promote greater social justice and budget equilibrium by revoking the tax loopholes and other policies that have primarily benefited the wealthiest citizens. He wants to raise taxes on capital gains as well as income, in addition to taxing, at the European level, international financial transactions.

* He favors a less exclusionary, more universalistic conception of French citizenship—one more consistent with the nation’s republican heritage. He would end racial profiling (“le délit de faciès”) and the job discrimination many racial minorities face, while continuing to defend the principle of laïcité. He supports the right of legal immigrants to vote in local elections. He will increase the financial sanctions for political parties that do not propose an equal number of male and female candidates. He favors gay marriage and the right of homosexual couples to adopt children.

* He is committed to strengthening French democracy. He would end the peculiar habit by which former presidents sit on the country’s constitutional court. Parliament would receive more powers to nominate and approve appointees to top government positions. He would end the practice of French politicians having more than one electoral mandate at any one time (though I’ll believe this when I see it…). Nominations for the directors of state television and media companies would be made by independent authorities, rather than the government.

* Finally, Hollande wants to strengthen French public services. Most importantly, he favors hiring another 60,000 teachers, making public schools—which have always been the central institution of the French republic—capable both of educating the French, preparing them for the challenges of globalization, and of serving as the primary vehicle for integrating an increasingly multicultural citizenry (and, perhaps, to satisfy a key constituency: more than a worker’s party, the Socialist Party is more than anything a public schoolteacher’s party…).

That said, I have a number of reservations about Hollande.

First, to what extent is he really a man of the left? It’s not that I doubt his honesty. It’s more a question of political sociology. In the not too distant past, members of the PS were actually “movement socialists” (to borrow an American phrase). They were activists, like Rocard in the Parti socialiste unifié, Jean-Pierre Chevènement in the CERES, or Jacques Delors in Christian trade-unionism. Socialists are now technocrats, trained like their conservative “rivals” in the grandes écoles. Hollande is a pure product of this transformation. It’s also striking that he, like Sarkozy (and me—but that’s a different story!), share a connection to Neuilly-sur-Seine, the posh Paris suburb that is France’s answer to Greenwich, Connecticut. Hollande grew up in Neuilly. Sarkozy was its mayor. Being a socialist was a career choice for Hollande, more than a matter of conviction. There’s clearly many voices clamoring at present that the voice of the “excluded” and “outsiders” of French society be listened to, as the success both of the far left (Jean-Luc Mélenchon) and the far right (Marine Le Pen) on April 22 attest. One of the tragedies of French politics is that the party of the downtrodden is in many ways now the National Front, not the socialists. I wonder if Hollande is really up to the task of inventing a French left for the twentieth century.

Second, though Hollande is, like many French politicians, an intelligent, well educated, knowledgeable, and articulate individual, he has little experience governing, other than a few local positions and a seat in parliament. True, he was for many years the head of the Socialist Party, but he’s never had a cabinet position. Perhaps this is not important. The same could be said, for instance, of Tony Blair (whatever one thinks of him, he didn’t seem to have any obvious liability when it came to sheer governing ability in 1997, despite the fact that he had never been in government). But given the European crisis and the challenges France faces, it seems at least something of a problem that Hollande’s first government job will likely be the presidency.

Finally, there is what I would call the “Third Way” problem. In the nineties, the US (with Bill Clinton), the UK (with Blair), and Germany (with Gerhard Schroeder) elected left-of-center governments founded on trying to reconcile liberal and/or socialist ideas with free-market principles. It was a recipe for considerable electoral success. Now, in the aftermath of the 2008 economic meltdown, the Third Way seems to be part of the problem. It led, for instance, to welfare reform and the repeal of Glass-Steagall in the US. The problem with the French socialists is that they never endorsed the Third Way, even as they pursued policies close to it, notably under Prime Minister Lionel Jospin (1997-2002). As a result, Hollande’s economic thinking is unclear and ambiguous. On the one hand, he champions fiscal discipline, as he almost has to do, given France’s European obligations. On the other, his policies seem to entail massive increases in government expenditure, as Sarkozy has rightly pointed out. Is there a danger, as Sarkozy has warned, that such policies could put France on the road to being the next Greece or Spain? Hopefully not; but there is perhaps greater reason for such concern under a President Hollande than under the incumbent. Moreover, Sarkozy has been able to argue that he, rather than Hollande, is more faithful to the Third Way idea—witness his argument that many of his policies are consistent with those pursued under Schroeder in Germany. Sarkozy has for these reasons been able to make the case that Hollande is an unreconstructed socialist, far less in tune with economic reality than the likes of Blair or Schroeder. Hollande claims, furthermore, that he will try to get Germany to adopt more pro-growth policies at the European level. Yet if Hollande wants to save the euro, this could prove wishful thinking.

The fear, in short, is that Hollande will be a typical French socialist—someone who promises a great deal, but who governs rather conservatively, fueling the disenchantment of leftist voters, and allowing the far right to present itself as the true champion of the disenfranchised. This is a serious concern. Yet given Sarkozy’s record, a President Hollande is well worth a try.

I wrote a portrait some time ago of Hollande that can be read here.

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3 responses to “For French President: François Hollande (With Reservations)

  1. The looming far-right threat is a strong incentive for Hollande not just to have a go at “conservative” governing. It is a must to try to cope with the incoming crises. One of them has simply been ignored by both candidates. Growth is simply not sustainable in the long run. There are no more wide tracks of land to explore and tap for resources. Our climate is changing due to the huge release of carbon dioxide. Another route towards survival and justive has to be implemented. You could take it for granted Sarkozy only played lip service to conservation. Hollande is definitely not a mouthpiece for alternative economic patterns…and yet he may be the only means to try something else. Wait and see!

  2. Great article – Hopefully he will rise to the occasion. MB

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