The French president
The waterproof Mr Hollande
François Hollande takes on the French presidency and the weather
May 19th 2012 | PARIS AND BERLIN | from the print edition
FIRST he got soaked in heavy rain when parading in an open-topped car. Then his plane was struck by lightning just after take-off, forcing him to return to Paris and get another. François Hollande, who was sworn in on May 15th, promised a “normal” presidency, but his first few hours turned out anything but. Yet Mr Hollande seemed unperturbed, focusing instead on setting the tone for what he billed as a presidency of “dignity but simplicity”.
With a slow presidential walk and a solemn look modelled on the Fifth Republic’s only previous Socialist president, François Mitterrand, Mr Hollande climbed up the Elysée steps, briefly waved goodbye to his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, and promised the French “calm, reconciliation and unity”. Before heading off to summits in America, the leader who has never held ministerial office chose his prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, dropped in (late) on Berlin for his first meeting with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and formed his first government.
In Mr Ayrault, the 62-year-old leader of the Socialist parliamentary group and mayor of Nantes, Mr Hollande has a loyal colleague whom he trusts to get on with the job. A return to the old Fifth Republic division of labour, with the president managing foreign policy and the prime minister domestic affairs marks a change from Mr Sarkozy’s “hyper-presidency”. In a thinly disguised swipe, Mr Hollande declared in his inaugural speech: “I will determine the priorities, but I will not decide everything”. That also gives him a handy scapegoat when things go wrong.
Mr Ayrault has no ministerial experience either, but he matches the anti-elite mood. Like Pierre Mauroy, Mitterrand’s first prime minister, his roots are provincial and modest: born to working-class parents, he is not a graduate of the elite universities. He and Mr Hollande share a consensus-seeking character, unflashy taste and—despite My Ayrault’s youthful far-left enthusiasm—pass for Socialist moderates. A fluent German-speaker, former German teacher and regular visitor across the Rhine, Mr Ayrault is almost unknown at home. One popularity poll last month put him in 46th place, chiefly because so few respondents had heard of him.
The new government reflects Mr Hollande’s instinct for compromise. He has brought in old enemies, such as Laurent Fabius (a former prime minister) as foreign minister. A rival who led the fight against the European Union constitution in 2005, he later rallied to Mr Hollande. Mr Hollande must presumably believe in his loyalty to the new team; he may judge that his former stance was driven by opportunism rather than conviction. The president has also rewarded close allies. Pierre Moscovici, his campaign director and a former Europe minister, becomes the new finance minister. Manuel Valls, his ambitious centre-left communications director, goes to the interior ministry.
At the same time, Mr Hollande has tried to balance economic moderates, such as Mr Moscovici, with the party’s left-wingers, notably Arnaud Montebourg. The author of a best-seller on “deglobalisation”, who did well in the party’s presidential primary, Mr Montebourg will become the “minister for productive recovery”. The biggest surprise is that Martine Aubry, the left-wing party boss and a hopeful for the prime ministership, refused a lesser job and will not join the government—raising the spectre of possible future clashes.
This week also offered a taste of what Mr Hollande will bring to Europe. When he finally got to Berlin, Mr Hollande and Mrs Merkel put on a show of unity, promising to keep the Franco-German couple strong and help Greece stay in the euro. The two leaders acknowledged “differences”, but insisted there was room “to find common ground”. In terms of mood music, it was a better start than that of Mr Sarkozy, who also flew to Berlin hours after his inauguration. The label “Merkozy”, coined to describe a joint approach to the euro crisis, masked an often prickly relationship. Mrs Merkel may have backed Mr Sarkozy for re-election, but she and Mr Hollande, both measured and rational, are a better temperamental match.
Mr Hollande faces parliamentary elections in June, so he needs something to show for his efforts to fight against austerity. The party spokesman, Benoît Hamon, declared this week that “we did not cast a vote to get a European Union president called Mrs Merkel who has the power to decide everybody else’s fate.” Mr Hollande has the force of a fresh mandate and may want to flex his muscles. But he represents a country that has not balanced a budget since 1974. Any attempt to defend a slacker approach to deficits risks looking like a pretext for backsliding at home.
Yet Mr Hollande’s promise to fight austerity will look empty if he sticks with Mrs Merkel in holding Greece to its fiscal targets—or is forced to impose more austerity at home. Mr Hollande was elected on a pledge to reduce the French deficit to 3% in 2013, and increase spending by €20 billion over five years. The European Commission forecasts the 2013 deficit at 4.2%, implying that an extra €24 billion of savings are needed. All of which suggests that the waterproof president’s campaign promises may turn out less than watertight.
from the print edition | Europe