French president must reboot agenda

French president François Hollande has some work to do if he wants to redeem his public approval and realize any of the positive political change that he campaigned for last year. Namely, he must follow through on his promise to clean up the government and make sacrifices to tackle the tumbling economy.

Hollande’s campaign for presidency operated under the promise of socialist reform. The campaign centered upon internal reform in an attempt to stamp out political corruption. Under new laws, ministry officials must sign a charter of ethics and find personal means of transportation to work in lieu of the previously provided ministry cars.

Having heard these kinds of promises, it is understandable that the French people are frustrated after hearing about members of Hollande’s administration being implicated in embezzlement. Jérôme Cahuzac, the former Socialist budget minister who has been in charge of implementing stricter measures against tax evasion, was caught this week with a secret bank account holding the equivalent of more than 750,000 U.S. dollars.

This event further undermines Hollande’s presidency, even as he condemns Cahuzac and vows to continue the cleanup of French political life. For many French citizens, this is just another example proving that politicians are self-interested and lack concern for the common good. Some are even skeptical that Hollande and Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault were unaware of the account’s existence.

The French people have lost faith in Hollande’s ability to follow through with his promises. His administration is further weakened by the worsening economy, once again on the brink of recession. Hollande’s approval rating has fallen to record lows, and unemployment, at 11 percent, has reached a 14-year high. The flailing economy, coupled with an onslaught of new taxes, made it impossible for France to meet their budget-deficit target for 2012, and they have long since given up on making the target for this year. The government is currently spending 57 percent of its GDP on public spending—the highest in the Eurozone. There needs to be a compromise to cut this spending, along with other measures to help kickstart the economy, but it will take a strong leader to enact them.

The French are blessed with a highly educated society—albeit elitist—and longstanding traditions of democracy and rule of law. The state is heavily involved in certain sectors of life, particularly health care, education, and infrastructure, to ensure a more egalitarian society—in line with socialist philosophies. Over time, a more equitable distribution of wealth has been nurtured. While this does not necessarily run contrary to economic incentive, the current top down income tax of 75 percent offers no motivation for businessmen to reside in the country. Rather, they are choosing to pursue business ventures in other countries.

Hollande must recalibrate the country’s political mentality to focus on economic competitiveness. The current benefits in place for people are simply unsustainable in our competitive world. French social philosophy and egalitarian principles need not be abandoned, but compromises must be made, and the populace will have to share the burden.

For example, the 35-hour work week is too leisurely to keep a competitive pace with the rest of the world. If Hollande can find a way to convince the French people that longer work weeks are necessary for economic progress, I’m optimistic that they can find a compromise that maintains the French joie de vivre but also fosters a more intense work ethic and attitude. The French unions, which wield a tremendous amount of power, are notoriously opposed to any change that could result in a more burdensome working environment, so Hollande will have to try to compromise with them. The more deluxe government programs, such as doctors visits to homes, could also be scaled back to reduce spending. Such changes must be made with great caution, but I believe there is a way to maintain the French leisurely culture while also attuning it more to incentives and economic motivation.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy lost public support after being blamed for the financial recession that took place on his watch, with the socialists coming to power over the conservatives. Unlike the hyper-polarization that we routinely see among political parties in the United States, however, the divide we see in France is less severe, as the country fundamentally supports more egalitarian principles. Thus, it is possible for the country to work together to focus on structural economic reform—but Hollande must play an active role in its realization, which he has been neglecting thus far.

French intellectuals such as Jean Monnet realized the importance of integration with the rest of Europe after World War II, collaborating with Germany and other countries. This led to the creation of the Common Market, which over time flourished into the European Union. As the Eurozone faces crisis, this collaboration is certainly still a work in progress and requires effort on the part of all member states to keep it intact. The partnership between Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel had been central, but has been less productive under Hollande. Merkel sees Hollande’s reforms as inadequate, and he has been currying favor with southern Mediterranean countries that are against her austerity measures.

The challenge for Hollande lies in how to keep France moving forward without losing its joie de vivre. As people lose faith in his presidency and the flashy promises he made at its start, Hollande should focus on rebuilding trust with the people. This objective can be realized if he steps up efforts to curb corruption, but he must also implement measures to improve the economy. This is not to say France should lose its egalitarian, socialist principles, but it must make certain sacrifices to maintain competitiveness with the rest of the world.

 

—Sara Lobo ‘16 is a student at Vassar College.

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