From his 75 percent income tax to his 25 percent approval ratings, François Hollande, the French president who took office one year ago, has already been judged the hapless Louis XVI on the eve of the French Revolution or the feckless René Coty who presided over the demise of the Fourth Republic. But what has caused Hollande to adopt the stance he has?
In reality, the sources of Hollande’s conduct lie deeply ingrained in the French character. His approach to date will therefore continue for the next four years unless catastrophe were to come. Yet his approach could cause catastrophe to come.
Hollande took office on the promise of change, but the “Vive la différence” was actually confined to his being not-Nicolas Sarkozy. Otherwise, he embodied “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” as he and his government predictably acted like Socialists at home and Gaullists abroad.
Now, one year on, it requires a third French expression to explain Hollande: “D’abord il faut durer” — “The first priority is to survive.”
If the Germans are motivated by superior performance and the British are stirred by historical pride, what matters most to the French is the delectation of daily life. In bad times, they might accept minor adjustments, but there will be no un-grumbling muddling through or straining of every sinew. Stoicism holds no appeal. That is why Hollande has rejected austerity.
By definition, “D’abord il faut durer” is not new. When Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, who had been brought up in France, accompanied Winston Churchill to Normandy a week after D-Day, he recorded in his diary:
I was astonished to see how little affected the country had been by the German occupation and five years of war. All the crops were good, the country fairly clear of weeds, and plenty of fat cattle, horses, chickens, etc. … And the French population did not seem in any way pleased to see us arrive as a victorious army to liberate France.
Nor is “D’abord il faut durer” confined to the masses. When Charles de Gaulle wrote on leadership inThe Edge of the Sword, he mocked the Abbot Sieyès for merely “having survived” in history-making times and the Chancellor Pasquier for the “thirteen oaths he swore” to different regimes.
Today, when Hollande’s Minister for Industrial Recovery, the bumptious Arnaud Montebourg, is tolerated gaffe after gaffe, that is because he has staked industrial recovery on staying French and changing nothing at all.
All this at a time when France needs a Herculean public-private effort to restore its competitiveness, far beyond the timid tweakings of the well-meant Gallois report.
At European level, “D’abord il faut durer” places burdens on everybody else before it seriously inconveniences the French. For Hollande and his party to back away from the Merkozy Franco-German couple, but to do so seductively and plaintively, lets France increase its attractiveness to anti-austerity Italy and Spain while compelling disciplined Berlin to sidle closer to Paris, which is exactly what is happening now.
In the Europe-U.S. relationship, the protectionist carve-outs that Hollande has already proposed for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership betray much more of a “D’abord il faut durer” mentality than exhibiting enthusiasm for a new engine of growth.
Adhering to “D’abord il faut durer” binds Hollande to balancing interests rather than exercising leadership. This power vacuum produces perils.
No one ever knows which spark will fire the tinder of French social unrest. The violence of the recent protests against same-sex marriage, in a tolerant country that was among the first to enact civil unions, exceeded any hue and cry on the financial crisis: the measure upset established social order.
The luxury CEO Bernard Arnault may have renounced his bid for Belgian citizenship but anecdotal evidence suggests that the exodus of highly educated French professionals outpaces any prior emigration in France’s history.
In Europe, France alone can propose the new three-tier architecture needed for the European Union. Britain, always half “out,” has no voice at all until its referendum. The reaction against Germany during the eurozone crisis has shown its lack of legitimacy on its own, in other words without France at its side.
Especially at a time of United States strategic retreat, France must maintain its global presence, as the recent French defense white paper stressed and the Mali intervention validated. Still, a listless France in a Europe adrift soon risks irrelevance or ridicule.
Hollande is right that “France is a great country.” But rightly to be great requires doing as well as being. “D’abord il faut durer” is not enough.