Who Is François Hollande? Crisis Will Reveal French President's True Contours
Part 2: Hollande Views Germany's Merkel as Ideological Opponent
During those first months, it sometimes seemed as if Hollande hadn't realized yet that he was now holding power, as if he still saw himself as the party leader who had to mediate between his party's various factions and make each group feel its opinions were important. He conveyed the image of a president who had a hard time explaining what he planned to do about the financial crisis and who seemed to have an even harder time actually taking action on the issue.
Only at the European level has Hollande taken an active role, seeking out confrontation from the very start with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom he sees as an ideological opponent and whose austerity policies he views as a grave mistake. Hollande considers counterbalancing "austerity in Europe" an important task. Unlike Merkel, he believes it to be impossible to create growth this way. Battling the German chancellor seems to be something he enjoys, and it also appears to be a battle he truly believes in.
In France, though, instead of taking immediate action, he commissioned a number of reports, including one from Louis Gallois, former head of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), on how to "improve competitiveness." And while hesitating to make deep cuts to France's bloated state sector, Hollande's government increased taxes on businesses and private households by a whopping 20 billion, taking them right up to the pain threshold.
When it emerged in October that the recommendation in Gallois' report on competitiveness was to relieve employers of 40 billion worth of contributions to social spending, the Socialist Party's left wing was quick to announce its opposition to the plan. Socialist politicians and advisors made their voices heard in the country's newspapers, expressing their belief that France's economic woes could be solved through the traditional Keynesian theory of pumping more money into the economy. The president and his administration were then quick to distance themselves from the report they themselves had commissioned, and which had not yet even been published.
Open Spirit or Lack of Direction?
This struggle surrounding Gallois' report is typical of the those that seem to occur constantly around Hollande.
The French president surrounds himself with members of the classical Left, for example his minister for "Industrial Recovery," populist Arnaud Montebourg. When Montebourg heard French carmaker PSA had decided to close its Peugeot factory outside Paris, the minister reacted with a rant against the company and a demand for the government to intervene.
On the other side of the equation, one of the president's closest advisors is former Rothschild banker Emmanuel Macron, who is reported to have responded to Hollande's budget law imposing a 75 percent tax on the country's highest earners with a memo that read, "That's like Cuba but without the sun."
It's impossible to predict which of these people Hollande will listen to, or when and why. The president doesn't want to pin himself down to a single course of action, which can be interpreted either as a sign of his open spirit -- or a lack of direction. Nobody knows whether Hollande has firm convictions of his own.
All this made Hollande's press conference in mid-November, held half a year into his term in office, particularly important. The president needed to show who's the boss, and he needed to illuminate the way ahead. As if intended as deliberately ironic commentary, the evening before the press conference a jury of French journalists awarded Hollande a "Prize for Niceness in Politics."
'Decline Need Not Be Our Fate'
Yet as he has so often done after being written off, the next day Hollande pulls off a masterful performance. Standing in the ballroom of the Elysée Palace, he points out again and again that he is the president -- not that there could be any doubt, given the regal setting. This is a format that would be unthinkable in almost any other Western democracy: an hours-long television production.
Hollande presents the situation in France more candidly than he has ever done before. He speaks in a grave tone, his gaze serious. He says, "Decline need not be our fate!"
And immediately some French commentators, seized by exuberance, compare this day to another seminal political moment: the West German Social Democratic Party's convention in Bad Godesberg in 1959, at which Germany's left first accepted the idea of a market economy. This seems like an overblown conclusion from this press conference, where Hollande surprisingly uses the phrase "social democracy," once, generally a banned term among France's Left. But it is indeed the first time Hollande has given something that could be described as a "blood, sweat and tears" speech.
Hollande likes being president -- that's easy to see as he addresses the room -- just as he liked being a candidate. He enjoys exercising the powers of his office, especially in front of an audience. And once the serious, initial portion of the event is over, he displays a cheerfulness and a playfulness with words that seem almost too lighthearted for the seriousness of the situation. The constant smile that he restrains only with difficulty is simply part of Hollande.
But this press conference described as a "turning point" in Hollande's presidency does not feature an all-new Hollande, it features the same hard to read man. Although he sounds very much the centrist, in the next breath he is referring to the classical left-wing economic policy that says demand must be stimulated. And in the end it even remains unclear whether France will truly comply in 2013 with the Maastricht criteria, which stipulate a maximum of 3 percent new indebtedness.
On this day, Hollande has clad himself in regal robes in front of an entire nation, and that is the impression he wanted to give: the president who seems able to rise above party affiliation, a man who has recognized the seriousness of the situation. The coming years will show whether he is up to the task of handling that situation. The crisis will show who François Hollande really is.
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
- Part 1: Crisis Will Reveal French President's True Contours
- Part 2: Hollande Views Germany's Merkel as Ideological Opponent