These Days Every Day is a Bad Day for François Hollande (and France)
In 2012 François Hollande was elected president of France because unlike his opponent, the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, he promised to be just an ordinary guy. He’s certainly not extraordinary. But is “infraordinary” a word? Because not a day goes by without poor Hollande, known as Flamby (a brand of individual flans in a cup) shuddering like a bowl of Jello after new blows to his presidency. Beyond the consequences for the man, there will be an impact on the future of the French executive, and more important, on French democracy, with a real threat of a far-right (and anti-American) majority in parliament.
Hollande now rivals Jacques Chirac for the lowest approval ratings for any president of the Fifth Republic. He has brought his own party close to the breaking point, and has seen the rise of the far-right National Front become the leading vote getter in the country, ahead of the Sarkozy’s UMP, itself riven by corruption scandals and personal rivalries.
After the respite of summer (opinion leaders need a vacation, so officially there is no news in France during the month of August), Hollande hoped that September would offer an opportunity for a fresh start. The honeymoon for his second prime minister, the authoritarian Manuel Valls, offered Hollande the chance to continue German-friendly austerity policies that are barely different from those of Sarkozy, but that are very unpopular with the French left that Hollande’s Socialist Party is supposed to represent (and which have totally failed to ensure economic growth and reduce ever-rising unemployment).
Before August was even over, limelight-loving Arnaud Montebourg, heartthrob of the left of the Socialist Party, named “Minister of Productive Recovery” (whatever that is) under the previous Hollande administration, and promoted to “Minister for the Economy” (but not Minister of Finance) in the Valls government, kept carping on the damage austerity policies were causing France, an argument strengthened by reports that Europe was facing Japan-style deflation.
Government unity, already shaky, was shattered, and Valls took swift action to show who was the boss, firing Montebourg and his supporters, education minister Benoît Hamon and culture minister Aurélie Filipetti (lately revealed to be in a romantic relationship with Montebourg), and having Hollande name a new government on August 26. Among those getting a promotion was the young Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, named Minister for Education, to the dismay of the sexist and homophobic wing of the right, due to her support for LGBT and gender equality, in particular for “The ABCs of Equality”, a program she had proposed while Minister for Women’s Rights, and which was labeled as the frightful “gender theory” (usually designated in English by opponents, to highlight its foreignness for the French). The fact that she is of Moroccan origin doesn’t help her with the folks on the right, who have launched smear campaigns including fake photos of her national ID card showing her “real” French name, and a fake letter from the ministry demanding that local governments propose Arabic lessons in schools.
While the promotion of Vallaud-Belkacem at least pleased much of the left, that of Thomas Thévenoud as Minister of Foreign Trade pleased absolutely no one other than Thévenoud himself. After only nine days on the job, tying the record for brevity among ministers in the Fifth Republic, he was asked to resign after it turned out that he has not declared or paid taxes for the last three years (surprising for the former chair of the Finance Committee of the National Assembly). Each day adds to the list of things Thévenoud has neglected to do. He has not paid rent in three years (quite odd for the former head of the public housing authority of his home département), nor did he include one of his business ventures in his declaration of wealth, a recent requirement for members of parliament. He blames this neglect on his “administrative phobia” (as a fellow sufferer, I can assure you that this does exist, and it’s a real problem if you live in France… but I am not a member of parliament or minister). Each day we learn more. Between the first draft of this piece and now, it has been revealed that he failed to pay traffic tickets, neglected to declare a second company (a wine brokerage suspected of various types of fraud), and stiffed the physical therapist who treated his twin daughters when they were babies.
Despite this, Thévenoud is returning to parliament, despite almost universal calls to resign. He has been kicked out of the Socialist Party, while his wife, the chief of staff for the outgoing president of the Senate, has also been fired, on the legal grounds that as Thévenoud’s spouse, she is equally responsible for the tax matters. Even Jérôme Cahuzac, Hollande’s first minister for the budget, forced to resign in March 2013 after his estranged wife revealed that he had set up secret bank accounts in tax havens, couldn’t resist the temptation to kick Thévenoud while he was down, given that Thévenoud had chaired the National Assembly committee in charge of investigating Cahuzac, and that in that capacity Thévenoud had denounced Cahuzac’s multiple lies to the National Assembly. Cahuzac notes that unlike Thévenoud, he had the good grace not to take back his seat as MP after leaving the government.
Thévenoud’s resignation as a member of the party reduces the Socialist seats of the National Assembly to exactly 50%. With the Greens having left the government, this means that the confidence vote Valls has called for September 16 needs every Socialist MP to vote yea. Alas, about forty rebels among the Socialist MPs are planning a “concerted abstention”, which would guarantee the fall of the government and bring calls for new elections that would leave Hollande facing a presidency with the opposition in control of the National Assembly, something the Fifth Republic is not really designed to handle, and which the UMP has declared it would not abide. The constitutional crisis the UMP looks forward to would undoubtedly result in the Hollande being forced to resign and a new presidential election held, during which every poll shows the far-right National Front in the runoff round.
Like Cahuzac, the latest spate of embarrassments is reviving some ghosts from earlier in Hollande’s term. His close advisor Aquilino Morelle, forced to resign from the presidential staff last April (although it seems so much longer) when it was revealed that he had been paid by pharmaceutical firms while working as a government inspector for the health authority, has just done an interview in which he claims (not very plausibly) that he defends Montebourg and claims that he was kicked off the staff because he refused to follow the economic policy doctrine that puts France in the thrall of Germany. (That he uses terms such as “ethnic cleansing” to describe his firing and the fact that he was only fired because of his own corruption somewhat decrease the impact of his attacks.)
After a long and painful day at work, Hollande must look forward to a relaxing evening at home. Except that there too, he is under attack, with a personal life that is exposed as no French president’s has even been, partly due to changes in the media landscape, and partly to Hollande’s extraordinarily bad judgment.
Back when he was president of the Socialist Party, the fact that Hollande and his long-time partner Ségolène Royal, a fellow politician who has served as minister several times and was the Socialists’ presidential candidate in 2007, were not married was not a big deal in France. It is not uncommon for French couples never to wed, and to remain together all life long, raising a family together. Nor was it very shocking that after 30 years together Hollande left Royal for journalist Valérie Trierweiler, who divorced her second husband and the father of her children to be with him.
What did pose a problem was the fact that Trierweiler and Hollande didn’t marry, either before or after his election. There is no official status for “First Ladies” in France, and an unmarried one was even more difficult to manage. Should the President’s “girlfriend” have an office in the Elysée Palace? But none of these issues compared with the revelation last January that Hollande was cheating on Trierweiler, sneaking out on a motor scooter to meet actress Julie Gayet in a friend’s apartment.
Rumors of the liaison spread. In the past, rumors would have had no consequence; the French press, itself often literally in bed with politicians (leading to odd situations such as TV news personality Audrey Pulvar recently reporting non stop on the political fortunes of her former boyfriend Arnaud Montebourg), as a rule refrains from reporting on politicians’ private lives. But the gossip press is a growing market in France, and the magazine Closer (owned by of all people Silvio Berlusconi) decided to break the unwritten rules and publish a paparazzo’s photos of Hollande arriving at the lovenest (that he came on a motor scooter only confirmed Hollande’s infraordinariness).
Trierweiler was hospitalized and shortly after Hollande announced their separation. Now she is getting her revenge, with the publication of a tell-all entitled Merci pour ce moment (thank you for this moment). It is an astounding act, unheard of in France, and officially distasteful. It has been curious to see journalists go through the motions of being disgusted that they are “obliged” to discuss a work revealing the private life of the president. Some bookshops are boycotting the work… sometimes after selling out. The first run is gone, and a new print run of 270,000 copies is in the works, showing that despite the distaste for the book declared in polls, the French love the stuff.
The highlights have been published by Paris Match, the weekly magazine Trierweiler works for. She talks about Hollande confiscating her sleeping pills in an altercation following the revelation of his infidelity, and any number of other personal matters. Just as it was difficult to take Bill Clinton quite a seriously after knowing what he did with cigars, it has become hard to take François Hollande seriously as president, especially because he has never seen presidential, and only came to be a serious nominee for the Socialists following the fall of Dominique Strauss-Kahn for his own personal sexual indiscretions (or worse).
Soon American readers can enjoy these revelations, with Regan Arts having purchased US rights to the book. It’s doubtful many Americans care about the love life of Hollande, but they might care about the consequences of the book on France, and on Europe. The most damaging sections of the book are those that describe the apparently affable Hollande as cold and heartless, in particular with respect to the poor, who (Trierweiler claims) he calls les sans-dents (the toothless… it’s not much of a joke in French, either, at best a play on “the homeless”).
It’s telling that this accusation of heartlessness to the poor is the only one to which he has publicly replied (with a denial, of course). Hollande who cares nothing for the poor is of a piece with the Hollande who after claiming he hated finance during the presidential campaign responded to criticism that he has been too favorable to business by replacing Arnaud Montebourg as Minister for the Economy with Emmanuel Macron, a former Rothschild investment banker.
It’s not clear what will happen on the 16th. If the government does not receive the vote of confidence, Valls will have to resign, along with the entire government. It is hard to imagine how Hollande could avoid calling for new elections, which he is certain to lose. In the case of new legislative elections, the Socialist Party, which has long dominated the left, will enter divided between its Blairist right and the traditional left, leaving the field open for the far left. The center remains divided. The remaining historic pole for governments, the right-wing UMP, is in debt and divided after a number of scandals and the defeat of Sarkozy, who is about to announce his intention to run for the presidency of the party. With the regular parliamentary parties so weak, the big winner will surely be the National Front. While the UMP has declared that it would refuse to govern under Hollande, leading to a constitutional crisis, Marine Le Pen, current leader of the National Front, has gleefully announced that she would happily serve under Hollande, but in conditions that would be intolerable to him.
Because Hollande has failed to respect his commitment to a change in economic and social policy, because he allows himself to be a prisoner of economic orthodoxy and German expectations for the Eurozone, and because he has been incapable of managing his personal life (just what did he think would happen when he took as his partner, and then cheated on, a reporter for Paris Match?), France may in a matter of days find itself with a far-right government with repressive and regressive social policies, a history of racism, and no real economic doctrine.
François Hollande, thank you for this moment.