Sophie Davis reflects on the first six months of François Hollande’s presidency
Cramped into a small restaurant tucked away in a corner of London Bridge, a large crowd of London’s French population was holding its collective breath. As François Hollande’s face appeared on the screen, chants of “on a gagné, on a gagné” (translation: we’ve won) erupted, many hugged, some cried. After all, it had been 24 years since they had seen a Socialist president elected.
I was there that night and have to confess to feeling a lump in my throat. As a dual national, I had campaigned for months, knocking on doors, handing out leaflets and organising meetings. I met London’s French – young students, civil servants, men and women working in restaurants and in retail, living in Bethnal Green and Kentish Town, loving their adopted city, its opportunities and tolerance, yet still attached to the motherland – and a world away from the cliché of the South Kensington, tax-avoiding banker.
Six months on, they are still here; but in the cold light of day, has the music stopped?
Looking at the recent news coverage, you would be forgiven for thinking that the hangover is brutal. The President’s approval ratings are falling. France is said to be “stagnating” and the French to be “morose”. Last week was described by The Guardian as being “the worst” since Hollande had taken office. Even the left-leaning Le Monde asked: “Has Hollande underestimated the crisis?”
Speaking to those celebrating with me that night, I found a more nuanced view – pleased with the measures taken so far, the government’s direction and Hollande’s style of leadership but expecting more; a sense that the Socialists are still adapting to government after a long period in opposition.
My own view is more optimistic. Hollande has demonstrated a different kind of leadership and he and his government, led by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, have opened the door to a new chapter for France, and Europe too. His first actions, already forgotten, were to appoint a gender equal government and to seek to cut his own and his ministers’ salaries.
While Sarkozy took one off the cuff decision after another – often announced to media before the Cabinet – Hollande and Ayrault have engaged and listened. Decisions have been conciliatory, considered and thought-through, yet also often radical.
On the economy, the French government has shown it is willing to make difficult choices while retaining its principles of fairness and social justice. Austerity yes; but with a focus on growth and an insistence that everyone pulls their weight. What it referred to as “the harshest budget in 30 years” combined a promise to cut the annual deficit down to 3% of GDP next year with the removal of the ceiling on the so-called “wealth tax”, a move to subject capital gains and dividends to the income tax regime, and a reduction of tax exemptions for loan payments by large corporations.
Measures have been introduced to reduce inequality, such as a cap to executive pay in state owned companies; and also to ease pain for those in the middle, with a cap on increases in the private rented sector and a real term increase in the minimum wage. You could call it pre-distribution.
This has been accompanied by a clear vision for the future – reforming and investing in education, creating a public investment bank to support small businesses, a reform of the banking sector and the so-called ‘generational contract’, a move to incentivize companies who keep on senior workers to also hire young people and use the senior workers to train them.
In Europe, too, Hollande is shifting ground. He has been willing to take difficult decisions and stand up to many in his own party; recently by pushing for the ratification of the fiscal compact. He has called for the European Central Bank to intervene on sovereign bond markets, voiced his support for the mutualisation of European debts and pushed for a single banking authority. In openly distancing himself from Angela Merkel he has enabled others, such as Italy’s Mario Monti, to take centre stage, allowing a wider debate. He is redefining traditional power lines and forcing Europe to re-think.
Like Obama four years ago, although somewhat less glamorously, Hollande was elected on a platform of change and hope. That, in a time of economic crisis and soaring unemployment, is hard to deliver. Hollande is not viewed as the best of communicators – partly a personality trait, partly a desire to move away from the over-exposed style of Sarkozy – and in this respect he may have not been sufficiently clear with the voters about the hardship to come. The caution may also come from a fear of repeating the mistakes the centre-left made when it last swept to power, in 1981.
Either way, now is the time for greater honesty and boldness. There is much to admire in Hollande’s thoughtful, conciliatory style of leadership but he must now have the courage of his convictions.
Sophie Davis is a Legislative and Political Researcher to Labour’s Frontbench in the Lords and a member of the executive committee of the UK branch of the French Socialist Party
Published 6th November 2012