• French minister stresses “pragmatic” cooperation
• Europe’s two largest military powers could set the pace for other countries
Euroscepticism might be spreading across Britain – and other EU countries — but it does not appear to be affecting Britain’s relations with France.
At least not in one important area. Far from it.
Cooperation between the two nations on defence seems to be flourishing. The French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, helped to explain why at a press conference in London on Thursday.
Le Drian, a Breton who speaks little English, came to see see Philip Hammond, his UK counterpart, in the framework of the Franco-British defence agreements enshrined in the 2010 Lancaster House Treaties.
The two countries enjoy mutual respect because of the capabilities of their armed forces and willingness to deploy them. And certainly Hammond and David Cameron appreciated the emphasis the French (socialist) government placed on nuclear weapons in its recent defence white paper.
There is more to it than that. After saying he enjoyed an “excellent” relationship with Hammond, Le Drian suggested why the two governments got on so well, in military matters at least.
He charactersised cooperation between the two countries as “pragmatic” — a word he emphasised five times in barely half an hour. He stressed the need for “concrete” steps with decisions taken by “sovereign” nation states.
Other European countries were welcome to join in such defence cooperation but it would be little to do with Brussels or the EU.
That was the message.
“I don’t speak of European defence but speak of the defence of Europe”, was how Le Drian put it.
British and French forces have been deployed together in large-scale exercises and they plan to be able to deploy a Combined Joint Expeditionary Force from 2016.
They plan to develop an Anglo-French sea-launched missile and have joint projects designed to secure and maintain nuclear warhead stockpiles (in Valduc in France and Aldermaston in the UK).
Britain and France are now planning to develop unmanned aerial vehicles — UAVs or drones, as they are commonly called.
The huge capability gaps in European defence capabilities were exposed during the Libyan conflict two years ago when Britain and France had to rely on US surveillance and intelligence -gathering aircraft.
In Mali in January, France needed the help of US intelligence assets and UAVs. Significantly, Le Drian was flying from London to Washington where France hopes to buy a number of US Reaper drones.
France already cooperates closely with the US on aircraft carriers — both countries use “cats and traps” planes — aircraft using catapults and arrester gear.
The British government last year abandoned its 2010 decision to equip its new carriers with “cats and traps” on grounds of cost. It has ordered the short take off and vertical landing version of Lockheed Martin’s F35 fighter, at a cost unknown.
Where does this leave the rest of western Europe, and Germany in particular?
“Germany needs to take a bigger part in European defence and security -play a bigger part in the debate on collective security”, a British defence minister told a recent European Council on Foreign Relations meeting in London.
“If European countries do not hang together they will hang separately”, commented a former senior UK diplomat who warned that the US could be an “unreliable ally”.
A European summit devoted to defence is due to be held in December.
This isn’t a uniquely French problem – EU nations of various political hues are in trouble because of a fixation on austerity
Today’s BBC headline fairly trumpets the news: “French economy returns to recession”. Funny how we Brits seem happy if our trans-Manche neighbours are doing a wee bit worse than we are. Especially if you can add that it is the fault of their government for being, well, a bit too left of centre.
True, the French have just entered double-dip recession, while we have just escaped. But in fact, in recent years the French and British economies have performed pretty much similarly in terms of GDP “growth” (or lack of).
The real European news today should, though, focus not so much on France, and certainly not alone, but on the dire state of the eurozone and broader EU economies. And this has no correlation with the formal political orientation of the government (centre-left, centre-right or whatever).
There is now a group of 10 EU states, not including France or the UK, who have experienced an annual fall in GDP for each of the past four quarters. This “Austerity A10 Club” includes the usual southern Europe list of Greece, Spain, Italy, Cyprus and Portugal. But it also includes two central European countries – the Czech Republic and Hungary – and the northern bloc of Belgium, Finland and the Netherlands – the land of Jeroen Dijsselbloem, Dutch finance minister and chair of the Eurogroup finance ministers, fresh from the Cyprus bailout “triumph”.
Italy’s GDP has now fallen 4.8% in just two years. Its annual GDP is back to the level of the year 2000. Greece has lost a staggering 31% of GDP, compared with its peak in 2008. These are catastrophic declines that have greatly worsened in the past two years.
And even Germany and Poland – which until recently have done reasonably well – each managed last-quarter growth of just 0.1%.
The problem that unites of all of these countries and the UK is not the political colour of the government but the macroeconomic policy that has been followed. It is particularly harsh for the eurozone countries which cannot rely on a central bank to ward off the bond vigilantes, and who are subject to the Bundesbank’s destructive (and increasingly self-destructive) policies of focusing on the risk of inflation just as the eurozone slides into deflation.
The deficit and debt/GDP ratio fetishes that unite the UK government, Ukip, the European Central Bank and the European commission are part of the economics of the poorhouse, where co-ordinated austerity is seen as a “solution”, even while unemployment reaches mass levels unknown in Europe’s modern history. Let’s remember why Keynes wrote his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money: in sum, employment must come first, the rest follows.
The problem for social democratic parties across Europe is that – scared in many cases of being viewed as anti-European – they have accepted the iron logic of the Bundesbank’s dogma, and are unable to offer an alternative of generating internal European demand.
This means hitting hardest the working class and other not-so-well-off voters in their countries, who turn either inwards on themselves (depression, suicide etc) or to other political forces, mainly rightwing populism.
The only solution for Europe’s social democratic parties is to say: no, time to change course. To make alliances with Greens and other new democratic forces. The European economic orthodoxy has to be challenged in unison by the centre-left parties if they are to survive and stand for any positive policies.
The EU from the outset was a balance between the interests of capital (common market) and labour (social protection). While that balance was maintained, most people across Europe were content with the EU, for all its faults. But the Troika (the ECB, the EC and the International Monetary Fund) is destroying that balance, leaving the EU simply as a neoliberal vehicle.
French economy shrinks 0.2% in first three months of 2013, new data shows
Deputy PM says UK austerity measures are ‘not as remorseless, rigid and dogmatic as some of our critics suggest’
The coalition has a more flexible and measured deficit reduction plan than the Americans, French and Spanish, Nick Clegg has said.
Clegg, speaking to floating voters on a boat on the Thames for his weekly LBC radio phone-in, also hit out at Labour’s “schoolboy approach” to the economy.
He defended the austerity programme on the eve of the local elections saying he saw tentative signs of a recovery in the housing market.
But he added: “I think there is a kind of view which is being put about that all we need to do is somehow abandon these cuts and then, hey presto, everything will be fine, the economy will be back to full strength and by next Tuesday everyone will have forgotten all the problems.
He came close to admitting that “plan A” had been abandoned, saying: “Our plan is not as … remorseless and rigid and dogmatic as some of our critics suggest. So if you actually look at the detail of our cuts this year and next, they’re less than what is planned by [the US president, Barack] Obama, they’re less than what’s being planned in France, they’re less than what will happen in Spain.
“As a sort of proportion of how much taxpayers’ money we spend as a country by the end of this parliament, we’ll be spending about 43% of the nation’s wealth on public spending … which is higher than it was between 1995 and when the banks went bust. So I think we’ve actually got a more thoughtful and measured plan than our critics would allow.”
The deputy prime minister also criticised Labour, saying the party had a “slightly schoolboy approach that if only you do one little thing, then suddenly everything will be rosy”.
He said: “One of the most frustrating dilemmas that we have faced in government is that we have thrown a barrage of initiatives at this problem to get the construction sector and housebuilding sector moving, it just takes longer than I would like,” but he added that there were some tentative signs of a recovery in construction.
“I am starting to think that we’re seeing the early signs of a bit of movement in the housing sector, but I agree with you: as a country for far, far too long – and by the way this is on all governments of all parties – we have built far too few homes.”.
François Hollande, France’s first Socialist president for nearly 20 years, has had a nightmarish first year
The freshly cut inscription on the marble “tombstone” was savage and to the point: “Betrayal! Here lie the promises of F. Hollande which were made to workers and their families in Florange on 24 February 2012. From the steelworkers of Lorraine.” With barely suppressed anger and bitterness, Frédéric Weber, a local union official, explained why it was sitting in his office: “When François Hollande was campaigning for the presidency, he said to me: ‘I will be the president of change.’ He came to Florange and he said that he would fight a war against the kind of finance that closed our steelworks. But he has bowed down before the markets and screwed the workers instead.”
Few countries do gesture politics with as much panache as the French. But the anger last week in this picturesque corner of north-eastern France, close to the German border, was palpable. After hundreds of years of steel production in the region, the famous blast furnaces of Florange were shut down for good on Wednesday, no longer required for service by the current owner, the billionaire businessman Lakshmi Mittal. The long passionate campaign against their closure, enthusiastically backed by Hollande before he won the presidential election a year ago, was over.
In the autumn, as time ran out for the plant, there was a suggestion that the new man in the Elysée would nationalise it rather than let the town’s steel-producing tradition die. That did not happen. Instead, the steelworkers of Lorraine became the latest section of the French population to become bitterly disillusioned with Hollande. “This tombstone is to testify that he let us down,” said Weber. “Maybe we’ll take it to the Socialist party headquarters in Paris to remind them.”
All in all, this has been some inaugural year in office for France’s first left-wing president in nearly two decades. Hollande is sometimes criticised for a Hamlet-like tendency to hesitate and, as with the Prince of Denmark, his sorrows have come not as single spies but in battalions which have arrived in Paris with ominous frequency.
Gérard Depardieu has taken Russian citizenship and left the country, in protest at a proposed 75% tax rate on those earning €1m or more. Peugeot-Citroën, the second-biggest carmaker in Europe, has announced its intention to close its plant in the Paris suburb of Aulnay – the first French car factory to shut down in 20 years. The new president, once hailed as a sober “Mr Normal”, in contrast to the bling-focused excesses of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, has found himself embroiled in a highly embarrassing public feud between the Socialist politician and mother of his children, Ségolène Royal, and his current partner, Valérie Trierweiler.
Unemployment reached a record high last week and is up 11.5% from this time last year. Growth continues to flatline. The passing of a bill to legalise gay marriage and adoption split the country. And in a public relations disaster of staggering proportions for a government committed to cleaning up politics, the former French budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, confessed to squirrelling away millions of euros in a secret Swiss bank account to avoid tax. No wonder Hollande apparently told aides that his presidency resembled a “toboggan ride”. In fact, the sheer speed of his downhill trajectory in the polls has become a source of wonder to academic specialists.
“We have all been amazed by the extent of the fall in his approval ratings,” said Bruno Cautrès, a lecturer at Sciences Po, Paris’s elite college devoted to political studies. “To go in less than a year from 65% approval to just 25% is remarkable.” Hollande is already more unpopular than Sarkozy ever was. Indeed, he has the worst poll ratings of any president of the fifth republic, which dates back to 1958. And by way of a one-year anniversary present, the magazine L’Express has just devoted 15 pages to a withering dissection of his performance, under the damning headline “Monsieur Faible” (Mr Weak). Can any politician, whatever his mistakes, really deserve such a hard time after just 12 months in power?
“When you are on the left it’s dangerous to sell dreams to voters at a time of economic crisis,” says Cautrès. “Hollande did not make it easy for himself by the way he ran his campaign. He said that his enemy was high finance and that it was going to be possible to combine budgetary rigour with social justice. Then he found himself putting up taxes and cutting public spending. It doesn’t look like your enemy is high finance then.”
Sylvain Courage, the political editor of current affairs magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, agrees that, in seeking an emollient tone and reserving harsh rhetoric only for the very rich, Hollande paved the way for a savage backlash from voters. As France stagnates, swaths of the electorate now feel they were sold a pup: “At the beginning some of his advisers were telling him to take the Churchillian approach – you know, this is going to take ‘blood, sweat and tears’ to turn the economy round. But Hollande didn’t want to be aggressive or alarmist like that.”
After he was elected, he even told his prime minister [Jean-Marc Ayrault] not to be too gloomy in his first policy speech and then went on holiday. Then when the terrible growth forecasts came in and the mass layoffs in industry began, he was caught off-balance and has been struggling to catch up ever since.”
Hollande certainly has his flaws. A deliberately unassuming style of leadership has allowed factions to flourish and, at times, confusion to reign. In deliberately avoiding the hyperactive approach to the presidency that characterised the Sarkozy years, he has often appeared too laid back, humble and sanguine for his own good.
Traits perceived as virtues when Hollande was running against Sarkozy are now seen as vices. In a television interview following the disastrous Cahuzac affair, the president of the republic referred somewhat quaintly to his “box of tools” for dealing with the economic crisis. In subsequent lampoonings he was cruelly compared to a plumber dealing with a tsunami.
Voters may have hated Sarkozy’s brash, brazen style, but many are also coming to loathe his successor’s seeming inability to put on any kind of show in the nation’s hour of need. A belated display of presidential force, in the wake of Cahuzac’s dramatic confession, when Hollande forced ministers to disclose their assets, failed to alter the impression of a man at the mercy of events. Hollande’s current nickname in the corridors of the Elysée – pépère, or “grandpa” – says it all.
“The French are contradictory about leadership,” says Courage. “They defy all kinds of authorities and yet at the same time they crave authority. We have killed our kings and yet we are are looking for a king.”
In truth, though, when seeking an explanation for this vertiginous fall from grace, it is “the economy, stupid” that provides the answer. And when it comes to France’s current economic woes, Angela Merkel may carry almost as much responsibility as her reluctant ally across the Rhine.
Last May, days after being elected, a plane carrying Hollande to Berlin, and a first visit with Angela Merkel, was struck by lightning and forced to turn back. The new president finally made it later that day, but as bad omens go this one was on the money.
One of the central pledges of Hollande’s presidential campaign was a commitment to “renegotiate” the German-led European stability pact. Conceived as the eurozone stumbled from crisis to crisis, the pact inaugurated an era of deficit reduction and austerity that has all but flattened some economies, and even spelt trouble in countries such as the Netherlands.
Renegotiation and a greater emphasis on growth and investment would have given the fledgling socialist administration – the first major socialist government to be elected in the eurozone since the financial crisis struck in 2008 – some breathing space. But Hollande didn’t even come close to getting his way.
Germany, having guaranteed the bailouts of eurozone countries overwhelmed by debt, called the tune, and the EU’s centre-right governments had already signed up to a policy of austerity. “Hollande didn’t even try,” says Courage. “When he got in front of Merkel, he just saw there was no point.”
Ever since, Hollande has laboured under the suffocating constraints of a draconian economic programme designed to reduce France’s budget deficit to 3% of GDP this year. He tends to prefer the word “rigour” to “austerity”. But nobody has been fooled by that. With growth negligible, the government is well off track and a further €5bn in cuts now has to be found. Hollande has started to talk of making “courageous choices”. His critics take a rather different view.
The left has denounced a rise in VAT which will hit the poor hardest, citing Hollande’s opposition to the same move by Sarkozy. “Why won’t a ‘left-wing’ rise in VAT have the same [negative] effect as a ‘rightwing’ one?” asked Le Monde Diplomatique this month, in a coruscating attack on Hollande’s “social-defeatism”.
The “competitiveness and jobs agreement”, allowing firms to extend working hours, lower salaries and move workers more easily from site to site, has also been condemned as an assault on hard-won workers’ rights. And Hollande’s mooted cuts to pensions entitlements is a toxic row waiting to happen. “Before he was elected, Hollande was never very precise about what he would cut and what taxes he would raise,” says Cautrès. “One of the lessons for parties of the centre-left is have a plan and be honest.”
Meanwhile, at the other end of the social spectrum, the Depardieu affair was just one in a series of confrontations for a president who unwisely admitted to not liking the rich very much. Bernard Arnault, the head of the luxury goods giant LVMH, eventually withdrew a bid for Belgian citizenship, denying that he was seeking to avoid the 75% tax rate. But the acrimony surrounding the supertax was summed up by a Libération front page, urging Arnault to “Fuck off, rich idiot!” Ruled unconstitutional by France’s top court, the tax has now become a levy on employers paying salaries over €1m, but the rows surrounding it go on.
According to Pierre Gattaz, a businessman touted as a possible future head of Medef, the French equivalent of the CBI: “This class warfare has to stop.”
So what now? A year into his five-year term, Hollande has admitted that he did not anticipate that the crisis “would last as long as it has, longer than expected”. But, in characteristically reassuring mode during a recent interview, he also insisted that the labour market reforms and budgetary discipline he had put in place would allow France to turn the corner. Within Ayrault’s government, others are not so sure. On the left of the Socialist party, influential ministers such as Arnaud Montebourg and Benoît Hamon are lobbying for an abandonment of the austerity which has so overshadowed this desperate first year in power.
“Only Merkel, supported by a few northern countries, believes it is working,” Hamon told the Observer. “And Germany is the only country now that proposes austerity when it’s clear there is no prospect of European unemployment rates going down. We have to finish with the politics of austerity in Europe. It’s moving that way, and François Hollande is part of this movement.
“We have to accept that this will cause political tension with the Germans and cause political differences. The wave of opinion against austerity is in the majority now among leaders and economists. The only economy that is resisting, opposing, vetoing, is Germany.”
In Florange, which was at the heart of the postwar coal and steel agreement between France and Germany that was the precursor to the European Union, there would be loud assent to that statement.
“This government could have made a stand on behalf of the other Europe, where youngsters are deserting Spain to look for work and where they’ll soon be deserting France too,” said Frédéric Weber. “They were elected on promises and hopes. Why did they allow us to hope if they hadn’t got the courage to stand up to finance and the demands of the Germans? Hollande needs to remember that, if the left doesn’t make that stand, behind it there is the extreme right, the extreme nationalists. Do we really want everything to unravel and for the borders of Europe to close again? François Hollande needs to start being a leader.”
Additional reporting by Kim Willsher
We have lost count of the number of times we contacted the firm’s French office but have been unable to get any response
In April 2011 we were driving in France when our hire car was hit from behind and written off. Europcar charged us €700 for the excess, but said that if it could claim from the other vehicle’s insurer we’d be entitled to a refund. The matter was complicated because two vehicles behind were involved and there was disagreement over who hit us. We’ve lost count of the number of times we contacted Europcar’s French office and have been unable to get any response from emails. I suspect we won’t get any money back but Europcar could at least let us know so we can stop wasting our time. ES, Cardiff
It’s startling that Europcar, which tells me it is standard practice not to contact customers until all relevant data has been collected, hence the two-year delay, can now lay its hands on this information. Its findings won’t cheer you. The police report gives no details of the other drivers so, as Europcar’s terms and conditions state, you are liable for repair costs. The lesson is always to get names and addresses and make sure they are included on any police log.
If you need help email Anna Tims at email@example.com or write to Your Problems, The Observer, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU. Please include an address and phone number.
Visitor numbers slump by a fifth in four years, but Spain, Belgium, Italy and Norway all see a rise
From Henry V to Peter Mayle, Britons have long been invading France with enthusiasm in order to claim a small corner of it for themselves.
But figures published by the Office for National Statistics suggest that the nation’s love affair with the chateaux of the Dordogne and the patisseries of Paris may be on the wane, with visitor numbers having slumped by a fifth in four years.
The ONS’s annual survey of travel trends found that British visitors to France numbered 8.8 million in 2012, well down on the 2008 figure of 10.9 million. Even more gallingly for the Gauls, while visits to North America were also down last year by 7.5% to 3.4 million, Spain, Belgium, Italy and Norway all saw the number of British visitors rise, with 2.3 million more Britons visiting Spain than France last year.
The reasons for the cooling of our French love affair were not clear, said Roger Smith, principal researcher for the ONS and the report’s author. Thanks to a combination of the Olympics, the Jubilee and the wettest April to June on record, 2012 was “an unusual year”, he said.
Spanish visitors fell by 1.2 million in 2009/10, but “what’s happened there in the last couple of years is that visitor numbers have clawed their way back to where they were”. France has not yet reversed its decline.
Jeremy Waldron, director of marketing at the Association of British Travel Organisers to France, linked the country’s decline in popularity to the financial crisis and unfavourable exchange rates. While families may be seeking cheaper deals in the package destinations in which Spain excels, “France is not seen as a cheap destination,” he said. “You go to France, to some extent, for Frenchness, not just for the destination.”
Others see Spain and Italy’s financial woes as boosting their popularity, at France’s expense. “With the eurozone crisis Spain and Italy … have become much cheaper of necessity,” said Derek Moore, chairman of the Association of Independent Tour Operators, while “in France prices continue to rise”.
In addition, he said, “local governments had stopped the massive handouts Ryanair and the like demand to fly to destinations,” leading to low-cost carriers pulling out of some routes to France.
Waldron sees the Olympics as a factor, suggesting the family and camping sectors which saw a slump were hit by families staying in Britain to watch the Games. “Every event was packed, and I think many of those people had decided not to go abroad. When they were standing on the streets in August, they were not on holiday in France.”
The overall number of trips abroad by UK residents fell by 0.5% in 2012. Incoming tourist numbers last year were up by 0.9% on 2011, although the number of those who came during the third quarter, during which the Games were held, was down on the previous year. But in part because those visitors, a total of 471,000 came specifically for the Games, spent more than in the previous year on average, earnings from visits to Britain rose by 3.6% to £18.8bn.
It means that the deficit between the amount Britons spend overseas each year and the amount visitors spend here has shrunk from £20.5 billion in 2008 to £13.8 billion last year, something which Smith describes as “a very interesting aspect to continue to watch”.
Britain ought to be playing a more active role than this self-isolation permits
For decades, the European Union was powered by the alliance between Germany and France. Co-operation between two nations which had fought three major wars in 70 years was the central reason for the union’s existence. As a result, no significant decision in the EU was taken without Germany and France agreeing to it. Not any longer. The Cyprus banking crisis has illuminated the new balance of power in the EU. Last month it was effectively Germany, alone, which set the terms. From Nicosia to Brussels and Moscow, it was clear that Berlin was in charge. EU officials all noticed the change. Where is France, they asked?
There is, though, another way of phrasing that question. In this new German-dominated Europe, where is Britain? Britain may never have placed itself in the very engine room of the European Union, as France chose to do. But does Britain have to continue to sulk in a dinghy being towed along by the main vessel? That, however, is the foolish and powerless position into which David Cameron’s European policy has condemned us. But it is not the only possible alternative to the engine room. Britain ought to be playing a more active role than this self-isolation permits.
This week, there is a reminder of the perils which follow from that semi-detached status. Last summer, in an attempt to rewrite the terms of British membership of the union, the government sent letters to its EU partners asking for their thoughts on the impact of European laws in areas ranging from the single market to international development and the environment. Some nations responded. Many others, notably Germany and France, did not. The exercise – dubbed the “balance of competences” review by the UK – was dismissed as a domestic British political exercise, not a genuinely impartial or co-operative stocktaking.
There is a serious failure of British imagination at work here. For the Conservative party’s own reasons, it casts its European policy as a repatriation of powers. The Tory mood, fanned by fear of Ukip, is for unilateral detachment. That is why Mr Cameron used the eurozone crisis to make his speech calling for new treaty negotiations which offer the UK an opportunity to loosen its position in the wider EU.
But Germany, it is increasingly clear, does not want Britain to leave. It is cooling on the idea of new treaties which the UK and others may exploit. This ought to be an opportunity for Britain. In quiet ways, like the current work taking place between the British and German ministers for Europe, it already is. But a lot more could be done with an EU policy predicated on reform from within, not repatriation from without. And think how much more effective the UK could be with observer status inside eurozone meetings, instead of pretending that it’s all their problem, not ours too.
The plunging popularity of François Hollande and his socialists is a severe and timely warning to the Labour leader
This is not going to be another Cain and Abel commentary about the Milibands. Which will probably be a mighty relief to both you and them. But I will begin by touching on them briefly. It was not only over which Miliband should be leading the Labour party that they disagreed. A more subtle and never explicitly vocalised difference, which is illustrative of an unresolved debate about where the Labour party should be orientated, concerned François Hollande.
The socialist’s election as president of France just under a year ago enthused a lot of the Labour party. For Ed, especially, it was an inspiration. The Frenchman had beaten off other contenders who were initially more fancied to become his party’s candidate. Rather like Ed had done when he beat both his brother and Ed Balls to the leadership of the Labour party. The Frenchman had rejected the idea that the only way to be a successful progressive in this era is to model your politics along the lines of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. He had, instead, taken his party back to a more retro type of squeeze-the-rich socialism and repudiated New Labour-style politics. Rather like Ed tends to do. Despite an image as an uncharismatic pointy head, the Frenchman had then gone on to take power by evicting a showboating conservative. Rather like Ed hopes to do. He also won big. The parliamentary elections that followed the presidential one handed him control of both houses. Ed hailed it as a new dawn for socialism (I paraphrase, but not unfairly), which would set an example for Europe and break the grip of austerity politics. Very soon after his hero moved into the Élysée Palace, Ed made a pilgrimage to Paris, where he was greeted with the warmth and ceremony that is usually bestowed only on heads of government.
In contrast to the younger Miliband’s eagerness to associate himself with Hollande-style socialism, the elder Miliband was leery of it. So were most of the more New Labourish people this side of the channel. Though he largely kept this to himself, David believed that the Frenchman was leading his party in a direction which was potentially disastrous. He privately predicted that the wheels would start coming off Monsieur Hollande once he had to start making some tough choices.
On this one, Ed’s admiration for the French socialist now looks badly mistaken and David’s concerns have been confirmed. The only respect in which the Hollande-sceptics have been proved wrong is that calamity and unpopularity have struck the French socialists even faster than the doubters anticipated.
It is just 10 months since Monsieur Hollande moved into the Élysée and in that short time almost anything that could go wrong has gone wrong. His personal life has received more lurid publicity than that which swirled about his predecessor. His budget minister, one of the heavyweight figures of his government, has just resigned after becoming embroiled in a tax fraud investigation. The French economy is teetering on the edge of another recession. Unemployment is now at a 16-year high and public pessimism about France’s economic prospects close to a record low. The initial support for the military intervention in Mali has faded fast.
It is a slim consolation for the French socialists that their conservative counterparts are also in a mess. The rightwing UMP party has been rancorously divided by the battle to succeed Nicolas Sarkozy. This fuelled talk of a comeback by him, only for the former president to come under judicial investigation for alleged illegal campaign financing. With the conservatives riven and the government disliked, the gainers are the extremes, the communist Left Front and the far-right Front National of Marine Le Pen. In a recent byelection in Oise, north of Paris, Mr Hollande’s candidate was pushed out of the top two by the Front National, which then came within a whisker of taking the seat.
Monsieur Hollande breaks new records of the wrong kind with each passing week. First, he broke a speed record by becoming more unpopular more quickly than any previous French president. According to polling conducted last week, he has now also broken the depth record by becoming the most unpopular French president in 30 years.
Some of his travails are rather particular to his personality, his country and his party, and it would not be sensible to search for too much read-across to this side of the Channel. For instance, British politicians don’t tend to become the subject of judicial investigations with such regularity as their French counterparts. But his fundamental political problems are directly relevant to where the Labour party is currently positioned and flag up some very important warnings to its leader. One source of his troubles is how Mr Hollande got elected in the first place. He was handed the keys to the Élysée not because the French were terribly enthused by him, more because they were thoroughly fed up with Mr Sarkozy. In a similar fashion, Labour’s current opinion poll lead of around 10 points seems a bit unearned – that is certainly the feeling among some in the shadow cabinet – because it seems to be mostly indicative of disenchantment with the coalition rather than surging enthusiasm for Labour. That leaves the lead potentially vulnerable to an upturn in the economy or an improved performance by the government. It is also possible to envisage a scenario in which Labour retains enough of an advantage to secure power at the next election in much the same way as the French socialists did: not on their own merits, but largely because of disenchantment with the incumbents. As Mr Hollande has discovered, that leaves you with nothing solid to fall back on when you stop being the critic and start having to make the tough decisions yourself.
Another of his problems is that he rather pretended to the French that he and they wouldn’t have to make any difficult choices. He gave the impression that the mere act of electing him would make things better. While his prospectus did acknowledge that the deficit would have to be tackled, he campaigned on a theme of ending austerity. He was generally mute about the hard spending choices implied by his promise to sort out France’s finances. They are, incidentally, not as bad as ours. He spoke volubly about raiding the rich and bashing the banks, implying to the squeezed middle of France – what you might call le moyen pressuré – that they would be unscathed.
It is his 75% tax on individuals who earn over €1 million that has attracted a lot of attention here, especially because some of France’s wealthy, such as Gérard Depardieu, have noisily fled into tax exile. Monsieur Hollande made the tax a centrepiece of this year’s budget, but it was largely totemic. Even he never pretended that it would raise all that much money. France’s highest court has anyway struck it down as anti-constitutional, forcing him to go away and come up with a second version. It is not the tax on millionaires that has got him into so much trouble with French voters. It is all the other tax increases that are hitting the not so well-off.
The moral for Labour is about the perils of not being upfront before you get to office. Labour, too, sometimes gives the impression that a tighter squeeze on the rich is all that is required to deal with the deficit. Clobber the banks a bit harder and restore the 50p rate on high earners and that will do the trick. I confess to having lost count of how many times Labour has said it can finance this pledge or that by taxing bankers’ bonuses. The lesson from France is that this might get you through a campaign. It might even win you an election. But pretending that you won’t have to make tough decisions affecting average voters will get you into terrible trouble once you are in power.
The most important French lesson for Labour is that things will very quickly unravel if you don’t come to power with a solid project for government which has been sold to the voters in advance. I would say there are at least four key aspects to such a project in an age of austerity. One: a plausible plan for how you are going to nurture future prosperity. Two: a clear idea of what you will prioritise for investment. Three: worked-out reforms for maximising the performance of public services. Four: acknowledging in a way which is at least reasonably candid where you will have to cut.
Mr Hollande, it turns out, did not really have anything much resembling a project for government. His administration seems absent of ideas about how to make France more competitive. His economic policy is muddled. His ministers have just been told to find an extra €5 billion in cuts next year and are talking about things such as means-testing family benefits. Because this was not spelled out by Mr Hollande before he took office, he cannot claim a mandate and his victory looks dishonest to an increasing number of voters. That has made him spectacularly unpopular left, right and centre, with disillusioned erstwhile supporters on the left the angriest of all and crying betrayal. Ed Miliband should contemplate the fate of Monsieur Hollande and beware.
Beleaguered Socialist party leader defends 75% supertax on rich and appeals for calm as France teeters on brink of recession
François Hollande has appeared on live television to try to convince France he has a clear vision to steer the country out of the global economic crisis.
However the Socialist party president warned he had no magic wand to protect France against the pressures squeezing the country.
With rocketing unemployment, stagnant growth and record-low personal popularity ratings, Hollande made a direct appeal for the French population to cut him some slack, given the scale of the country’s problems. “I have to succeed because the country cannot wait. The crisis continues, my duty is to get France out of the crisis,” he said.
“I am confident in France. We are a country of great innovation … I need all French people, whatever their economic and social place. I am counting on our entrepreneurs.”
If viewers were looking for determination and a global vision, however, they were given a mix of detail and generalisations. “What are my priorities … my priority is growth. I want France to have growth. I have a duty to restore growth.
“Today, we have lower growth than expected, so I’m asking for an effort from everyone,” Hollande said. “It’s true we have asked businesses to make an effort above all those who have an international market … but everyone must participate.”
Ten months into his mandate, Hollande has the worst presidential popularity rating since 1981, according to a TNS Sofres poll for the centre-right Le Figaro magazine. Surveys show the French president has the support of only 27% of voters.
Even leftwing supporters who backed Hollande in the May 2012 elections have been questioning his handling of the economy, which is teetering on the brink of recession amid a spate of industrial layoffs and unemployment at a 15-year high. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault’s rating also fell 5 points to 28%.
Unemployment figures on Tuesday showed the number of jobless rose to 3.17 million last month, the highest since July 1997. Hollande has admitted that stuttering growth would make it harder to fulfil his pledge to stem the rise in unemployment by the end of 2013. “French people are asking ‘Can we get out of this? Can we be the best?’,” he said.
The president stood by his controversial temporary 75% “supertax” on high earners, rebuffed by France’s highest court last year as unconstitutional. “I hope to introduce the 75% rate of tax … I will respect the decision of the constitutional court,” Hollande said. “Those who have the highest salaries … cannot they make an effort for two years? I’ve always said it will be difficult for the next two years for everyone.”
He said pursuing a politics of austerity would lead to unwelcome results: “You want to see extremists, even neo-Nazis in Europe … where is the European interest? To prolong austerity risks not reducing deficits but at the same time risks populist governments.
“I will not follow policies that lead Europe into austerity. Other European countries say only France can say these things.”
Asked about the French military operation in Mali, Hollande said: “We have stopped a terrorist offensive … today, that France that was regarded as a coloniser is regarded as a liberator.”