Today is the one-year anniversary of François Hollande’s inauguration as the new president of France, having swept to the Elysée Palace with a mandate for a more subdued presidential administration and a leftward turn after the ‘bling bling’ administration of center-right president Nicolas Sarkozy.
Hollande won’t face voters again for four more years, and by 2017, Hollande’s reputation may well have recovered, but at the one-year mark, he’s had a horrific presidency so far:
- France slipped back, as a formal matter, into recession today, with a GDP growth rate of -0.2% for the first quarter of 2013 with an unemployment rate of over 10% and eclipsing the previous high in 1997.
- Barely a month into his administration, Monsieur Normal appeared to be unable to stop a fight between his current partner, Valerie Trierweiler, and his former partner, Segolène Royal, when Trierweiler tweeted her support for Royal’s opponent, thereby ending Royal’s chances to become the president of France’s parliament, the Assemblée nationale, and making Hollande look as if he couldn’t even control matters within his own relationship.
- The traditional Franco-German axis that’s powered European integration for decades remains at a frigid impasse, despite the widespread belief that German chancellor Angela Merkel has outfoxed Hollande and is winning the policy war on how to address the ongoing eurozone economic crisis.
- He worked to implement a 75% income tax rate on income above €1 million per year, though France’s constitutional court has ruled it unconstitutional on technical grounds, all the while keeping in place strict targets to reduce France’s budget deficit and retaining a rise in the retirement age from 60 to 62 implemented by the Sarkozy administration.
- Budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac stepped down in April 2013 after it was revealed he had a Swiss bank account and had potentially committed tax fraud.
- Altogether, Hollande’s approval ratings are the lowest of any president after one year in office, and fully 73% of French voters are dissatisfied with Hollande and 68% are dissatisfied with his prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault.
It’s been, from a political perspective — and even from a policy perspective — a bit of a disaster. Hollande’s chief accomplishment, enactment of same-sex marriage in France, has been accompanied by vigorous opposition from Sarkozy’s party and from the far right, inspiring massive anti-marriage rallies and even an uptick anti-gay violence.
It’s enough to make you wonder — what would have happened if Dominique Strauss-Kahn had never been alleged to have sexually assaulted a maid in a New York hotel, had stepped down with his head held high as managing director of the International Monetary Fund to run for an almost certain nomination as the presidential candidate of France’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) and proceeded to challenge Sarkozy? Strauss-Kahn today, as a matter of coincidence, re-emerged to open a bank in South Sudan, one of his rare appearances since the debacle that led to his arrest in May 2011. Although U.S. prosecutors dropped charges of attempted rape and other sexual abuse charges in August 2011, Strauss-Kahn’s political career was finished.
Though it’s subject to a ‘grass is always greener’ caveat, there’s good reason to believe that a Strauss-Kahn presidency would have been a smoother affair than the embattled Hollande administration.
Despite whether it would have been better or worse, a Strauss-Kahn presidency would have been an incredibly different beast from the outset.
It seems unlikely that Strauss-Kahn would have ever campaigned on a pledge to raise the top rate of tax to 75%, let alone attempted to enact it, when it’s such an outlier among peer tax regimes. It seems more likely that Strauss-Kahn, as a relative moderate within the Socialist Party, would have been more receptive to implementing labor market reforms designed to make France more competitive — perhaps a gentler variant of the Hartz IV / Agenda 2010 reforms that Germany enacted under social democratic chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the early 2000s.
But as a former IMF chief and a former finance minister under the government of prime minister Lionel Jospin from 1997 to 1999 who worked to reduce the budget deficit to prepare for French entry into the eurozone, Strauss-Kahn would have come into office with an unrivaled economic credibility that would have allowed him to challenge Merkel on the direction of economic policy in the eurozone with vigor — and then some. It’s not hard to imagine Strauss-Kahn pursuing a relatively ambitious reform program domestically while simultaneously calling for less punishing austerity measures in the more devastated southern European economies.
Certainly, Strauss-Kahn’s candidacy and his presidency would have been plagued with the same sort of scandalous affairs that brought his career to such a screeching halt in 2011. It’s difficult to imagine Strauss-Kahn being emasculated in his first month in office (fairly or not), unable to stop a very public spat between a current and former lover, one of whom happens to have been his party’s 2007 presidential candidate and a leading political figure in her own right. Strauss-Kahn would have come to the French presidency after a career in the public eye, unlike Hollande, who had chiefly served a behind-the-scenes role — when he was half of France’s power couple, it was Royal, not Hollande, who was the public star. Hollande, from 1997 to 2008, was the first secretary of the Socialist Party and, unlike Strauss-Kahn, he was never a minister in the Jospin government and he was certainly not among the presidential contenders in 2007.
Four years are a long time in politics, French or otherwise, and Hollande can at least point to a military intervention earlier this year in Mali that went relatively smoothly by accomplishing a narrowly defined goal, and the Mali operation represents the Hollande administration at its best. Hollande could engineer his own comeback, especially if the economy improves this year or next — it’s hard to believe he can sink much lower in public opinion. For now, Strauss-Kahn will still have some ways to go until he, if ever, reaches political redemption in France. But he’s a formidable economic and political talent, and comebacks aren’t altogether unheard of in France. Just look at the return of former prime minister Alain Juppé as foreign minister in the final 15 months of the Sarkozy administration, despite his 2004 conviction for mishandling public funds.
With such an uninspiring administration, Hollande could well turn to a cabinet shakeup in the future to replace Ayrault or other top minister, including finance minister Pierre Moscovici — and he might do well to bring Strauss-Kahn or Royal, whose political talents remain unutilized, back into the top tier of government.