Hollande’s economic restart falls flat amid domestic drama


Nothing screams ‘sexy’ more than… a payroll tax cut.France Flag Icon

With the French press salivating over French president François Hollande’s surprisingly sordid love life, Hollande tried to refocus his administration’s agenda last week at a press conference to announce a planned cut in France’s payroll taxes and other measures to boost France’s competitiveness.  It’s a bid to win back some control over his unravelling public image.  Hollande suffers from massively low approval ratings —  just 22% of French voters support Hollande (somewhat of an improvement over polls in November that gave him just 15% approval).  There’s even talk that his administration could augur the collapse of France’s Fifth Republic.

But Hollande’s policy revamp has been lost in the furor over Hollande’s alleged dalliance with actress Julie Gayet.  Tabloids showed photos of the French president sneaking off to meet Gayet on his scooter (pictured above), and the news seems to have sent his current partner, Valérie Trierweiler, to a Paris hospital for over a week.  Elected on the premise that he would bring decorum and normalité to the Élysée after the ‘bling-bling’ presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, Hollande’s love life began overshadowing his presidency within days of his inauguration.

Trierweiler tweeted in support of Olivier Falroni, a dissident parliamentary candidate in June 2012, who was running against Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s former partner and the 2007 presidential candidate of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party).  Royal lost that race, despite Hollande’s support.  A reporter for Paris Match, Trierweiler fulfills the role of France’s first lady, complete with budget and staff, notwithstanding that she and Hollande never married.  Hollande and Royal also never officially married during their nearly 30-year relationship, which produced four children.

Trierweiler left the hospital after more than a week on Saturday afternoon, but the discord between France’s first couple continues to dominate headlines, with Le Journal de Dimanche reporting that presidential advisers are calling the relationship ‘finished.’  So much for Mr. Normality.  Though Sarkozy and his two predecessors, Jacques Chirac and François Mitterand, were both known for active love lives, the nature of media has changed since the French press kept Mitterand’s longtime mistress a secret from the public in the 1980s.

At a policy level, none of Hollande’s domestic troubles should matter.  But they come at exactly the wrong time, overshadowing Hollande’s push to make France’s economy more competitive.  At the center of Hollande’s proposal is a €30 billion payroll tax cut for French businesses, continue pushing forward with plans for €15 billion in budget cuts this year, with €50 billion more to follow over the next three years.  Though Hollande hopes that will make France’s businesses more willing to hire French workers, it seems unlikely to erase the mistrust Hollande has engendered by pushing a top income tax rate of 75% on incomes over €1 million, a troubled policy that seems set to take effect after facing legal problems in France’s top constitutional court.  Hollande and his leftist parliamentary majority pushed through a labor market reform in January 2013, but it was a relatively minor first step that merely streamlined the process for conducting layoffs.

Hollande would have engendered much more goodwill if he’d announced a retreat from the iconic 75% rate or announced a much bolder labor market legislation.  But that carries with it the risk of a full-scale revolt on the French left. 

His sudden rightward pivot is unlikely to make the left wing of his own party incredibly happy, either, to say nothing of his more stridently socialist critics like Jean-Luc Mélenchon.  Hollande backed down from a plan to assess around  €1 billion in revenue from an environmental tax in November 2013 after massive protests from truckers and other interest groups, and he backed down in October 2013 from a planned tax on French savings accounts.

There’s also no indication that Hollande is ready to shake up his cabinet, which is almost as universally unpopular as the president, including prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and finance minister Pierre Moscovici.  Jérôme Cahuzac, France’s former budget minister, was forced to resign in March 2013, under tax fraud allegations, when it emerged that he had hidden thousands of euros of money in foreign bank accounts.

The most notable exception is Manuel Valls, the Spanish-born interior minister whose law-and-order approach to immigration and other matters.  Though Hollande could ultimately promote Valls to prime minister, it might also risk a mutiny of the French left.  It’s also probably too soon to rehabilitate Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, who still faces charges of ‘aggravated pimping’ in France.  But no one else on the French left (disgraced or not) carries more economic policymaking credibility.

Laurent Fabius, who implemented the most successful decision of Hollande’s presidency, an intervention to push Islamist jihadis out of northern Mali and stabilize Bamako’s government, is another possibility.  But he first served as prime minister in 1984, which makes him somewhat of a retread.  Though he’s firmly part of the French left, his appointment could alienate France’s business class and moderate voters alike — and it would do nothing to boost the ailing Franco-German relationship (Fabius vocally opposed the European constitution during the 2005 referendum campaign).  For similar reasons, it’s hard to believe that Martine Aubry, the author of France’s 35-hour workweek, would be a credible prime minister.

If Hollande had wanted, instead, to lurch even further to the populist left, he might have considered the flavor of the month, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, interior minister under former prime minister Lionel Jospin between 1997 and 2000 who in 2002 left the Socialists to form the Mouvement républicain et citizen (Citizen and Republican Movement) and run as a candidate for president.

The relative strengths and weaknesses of replacing Ayrault with Valls, Aubry, Fabius, Strauss-Kahn, Chevènement or anyone else demonstrates that even a cabinet reshuffle or moderate policy u-turns won’t necessarily give Hollande a second chance with the French electorate.  Ultimately, he may simply have to wait out France’s economic woes and hope for an upturn in 2014 or 2015.

Even though France’s economy rebounded from a 0.1% contraction in the third quarter of 2013 to 0.5% growth in the fourth quarter, French GDP growth marked exactly 0.0% in 2012 and isn’t expected to grow much more for 2013, and growth hasn’t exceeded a high of 2.5% since the year 2000.  Meanwhile, the unemployment rate remains at a 16-year high at nearly 11%.  

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