Hollande’s ‘purely private affair’ shows his political impotence

The failure of the French economic model should spark regret the Socialist president fails to feel over his recently revealed entanglement with an actress

By Simon Jenkins  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Fri, Jan 17, 2014 - Page 9

Of course it matters. A president is not just a professional figure. He is a head of state, briefly the embodiment of his people. If Queen Elizabeth II were sneaking off on a scooter each night to see a nearby toyboy, Britons might regard it as a “purely private affair.” However, they would be aghast and agog. French President Francois Hollande’s love life may be private, but is it really of no interest or concern to the French people? Pull the other one.

Behavior, style and personal relationships may seem tangential to government as a business, but they cannot be divorced from government as an art. Most of the “unanswered” questions swirling round Tuesday’s Hollande press conference struggled to drag his private life into the public domain. Was there a security risk? Was the president vulnerable to attack or kidnap? Was a bodyguard with him at all times? The answers to these questions were trivial.

They were proxies for a different fascination, one that is bound to envelop the private lives of public figures. We all seek in the lives of celebrities some echo of our joys and sorrows. Personal emotion and behavior may have no imprint on public action. However, such is the secrecy of power that we crave any glimpse of the “man behind the mask.” In a democracy, “the public interest” is to some degree whatever interests the public.

Hollande swatted aside his ever-deferential press corps with “no comment” on his private life. However, he is asking his people to behave differently, to agree a “responsibility pact” to set aside decades of self-indulgence that is in part the legacy of his own French socialist movement. They must come together to liberate employment, and accept a reduction in spending and business taxes. His apologists might argue that this is just a matter of laws and austerity, but he is asking for a change in outlook and behavior. People are less likely to respond if they see the man asking as a fool or an object of ridicule.

I have always seen France as in some sense Britain’s twin. They are two countries with the same population, the same GDP, the same life expectancy and the same murder rate. They share much of their history. French workers pour into London for jobs, while one in five Britons spends at least a week a year in France. Finance flourishes in London, but Europe’s second economy, tourism, flourishes in France, whose coast and countryside are not just more extensive than Britain’s, but also better conserved.

France has seemed a strangely somnolent giant. After World War II it relaxed, while Germany strove. Paris played Athens to Bonn’s Rome. Its leaders were largely responsible for designing the common market as a comfort blanket, not a spur to efficiency. They guarded its agriculture and industry from global competition and isolated its social costs, particularly immigration from Africa, in sprawling suburbs and southern cities. France did well outside of Europe.

The result is often impressive. I drove last autumn from Toulouse across the southwest to Montpellier, as I had previously driven from Paris to Lyon and across to Bordeaux. Everywhere were signs of the huge investment France has made in its industrial and civic infrastructure: Airbus in Toulouse, IBM in Montpellier, Dassault and EADS in Bordeaux, and industrial estates around Paris and Lyon. Seemingly immaculate factories surrounded carefully beautified towns.

The prosperity and pride of French cities is in glaring contrast to Britain’s former industrial regions. London’s postwar contempt for provincial Britain is ever more grotesque when seen from continental Europe, as if urban renewal meant nothing but a motorway, a hypermarket and a shed estate. France knows such places must appeal culturally to new people and new money. Paris has protected its charm to be Europe’s premier visitor destination, while France’s glorious valleys and sweeping uplands are becoming the resort of an entire continent. I have never seen how France could fail.

It fails at present only when you enter any commercial premises and hear the same wail. Service is dreadful because taxes are high and employing anyone is prohibitively costly. Unemployment is now 11 percent, and the young and the rich are leaving for England and elsewhere. In almost any small restaurant, only family members are employed. France has sabotaged its industry with protection and its services with regulation.

In their immaculate history of recent Anglo-French relations, That Sweet Enemy, Robert and Isabelle Tombs chart the nervousness with which each country has viewed the other as the EU evolved. To former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, an early enthusiast for the common market, the cohort of French technocrats around former French president Francois Mitterrand and former European Commission president Jacques Delors offered a different economic model.

As she said: “It was clear from the start they had competing visions of Europe.”

Theirs was what Tombs called “the last full-blooded, left-wing economic experiment anywhere in the world.”

Thatcher — and former British prime ministers John Major and Tony Blair after her — were convinced the French model would not work. They were largely right. As its economy ailed, France sought comfort in joining the euro and thus denied itself the currency flexibility that might have protected it from nemesis. In 2005 the people of France could not face further union with Europe and voted initially against the Lisbon treaty.

At the time, the future French president Nicolas Sarkozy wrote that “the limits of the model” had been reached, and that France must reduce its “stifling” public spending, reduce public debt and “become less afraid of the outside world,” according to the Tombs.

When former French president Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in 2007 he promised what he preached: “to break with the ideas, habits and behavior of the past.”

He brought into play the long-delayed disciplines of “French Thatcherism.” However, he failed, giving Hollande the opportunity to promise relief from such disciplines and a return to the escapism of dirigisme and debt. It was a promise the electorate eagerly believed and, as a questioner asked at the conference, the result was “18 wasted months.”

It is this waste that Hollande should have regretted on Tuesday, whatever woes may surround his personal affairs. He has already declared the French state “too heavy, too slow, too costly,” but he needs to move mountains if he is to convert platitudes into action. He may plead his entitlement to a private life. However, his private life has made his public one immeasurably harder.