The French president may be unpopular with the electorate, but it could be a masterstroke to promote his main party rival.
French presidents have a ready-made response to poor mid-term municipal elections; they sack the prime minister, who is required to lay down his life for his master. In the Fifth Republic, prime ministers are always dispensable. Opinion polls may tell us that François Hollande is currently the most unpopular president in the history of the regime – even more unpopular than his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, became – but Hollande is not, of course, going anywhere. He will see out his term in the Élysée. That’s the way it’s done. General de Gaulle is the only president of the republic he created to have resigned mid-term. He went after losing an unnecessary referendum he had called, and there is reason to think that he sought an excuse to withdraw.
In one sense, getting rid of the prime minister is reasonable. Though the demarcation of the roles of president and prime minister is blurred, the latter is usually given responsibility for domestic affairs, the president retaining control of foreign policy as well as overall authority. Accordingly, rejection of the governing party in municipal elections may be properly regarded as evidence that the prime minister has failed and has become a liability. So the president has the opportunity to shift personnel, methods and policies while he remains above the battle. No-one was more skilful at snatching victory from defeat than François Mitterand, the only previous Socialist president of the Fifth Republic. Hollande is not in Mitterand’s class, but he may be learning from the master’s example.
Seen from this side of the Channel, the most surprising thing about Sunday’s vote is that a turnout of 63 per cent is regarded as a sign of the electorate’s disaffection and disillusion. Considering that this level of voting for control of town halls is several points higher than has been achieved in any of the four elections for the Scottish Parliament and much higher than is ever recorded for local elections in England, it might rather be judged to be evidence that democracy in France is in rather more healthy a condition than democracy is here.
Much is made here of the rise of Marine Le Pen’s Front National, which has won control of 13 towns and now has 1,200 municipal councillors. The FN is still always described as a far-right party, even though Le Pen has at the very least diluted her father Jean-Marie Le Pen’s racism, while remaining hostile to immigration.
More significantly, she is fiercely critical of the free market and “Anglo-American finance capitalism”, a stance that wins her support from many life-long blue-collar Socialists – who also, like middle-class FN voters, approve of her resistance to what she calls “the Islamification of France”.
The FN is indeed a mish-mash, nationalist and populist like Ukip here, advocating withdrawal from the eurozone and indeed from the European Union itself, but also in favour of Socialist-style protectionism. Its comparatively modest success suggests that the old Left-Right division is now obsolete, or at least so blurred as to be irrelevant.
That said, the winner of these elections was not the FN, but Sarkozy’s party, the post-Gaullist UMP, which won control of 155 towns, a figure that dwarfs the FN’s achievement.
Though in most respects there hasn’t actually been that much difference between the policies pursued by Sarkozy and Hollande, neither managing to improve economic performance or reduce unemployment, the indications are that, as things stand, the UMP candidate, whether this is Sarkozy again or someone fresh, is poised to win the next presidential election.
Certainly, without a marked improvement in the economy, it’s at present hard to see Hollande winning. He never aroused much enthusiasm, was indeed elected faute de mieux. It’s likely indeed that many in the Socialist Party would prefer a different candidate.
This is where Hollande has taken a risk by making former interior minister Manuel Valls his new prime minister. Valls is the son of a Catalan painter and a Swiss-Italian mother; he took French nationality at the age of 20. As interior minister, he has been tough on immigration, acquiring a reputation that will do him no harm. He calls himself a “Blairiste” and a “Clintonian”, and is a social democrat rather than a socialist, eager to attack vested interests and critical of the sclerotic statism which makes, for instance, business start-ups so difficult and expensive in France. One might say that, in many ways, he is closer to Sarkozy than to Hollande.
Yet he may be different from either, for if he matches his language with action, he may be seen to have firm principles. Whether he can rouse the Socialist Party from its inertia and obstinate resistance to change is doubtful. But then it is also doubtful whether the French want the sort of radical change that would mean an end to what they proudly call “French exceptionalism”.
France remains a deeply conservative country, where modest change may be accepted on condition that the essentials such as job security and high levels of social protection remain unchanged. What makes France so hard to govern successfully is that this is combined with intense individualism and resentment of authority. De Gaulle’s question – how to govern a country with more than 200 varieties of cheese – remains valid.
So Valls will probably fail. In which case of course, by making him prime minister, Hollande will have crippled a rival for the Socialist nomination as candidate at the next presidential election. François Hollande has not remained near the top of the Socialist party for so long without learning Machiavellian arts. One way of shafting a rival is to promote him. If Valls meets with any success, Hollande will at the very least share the credit and rewards; if he fails, he can take all the blame.
Meanwhile, the president can devote himself to foreign affairs and to posing as a world statesman. So, from his point of view, giving this difficult job to Valls may be a case of “heads I win, tails you lose”. One imagines that the ghost of Mitterand has greeted the appointment with a sardonic smile. After all, things could scarcely be worse for president Hollande than they are now. One way or another, making a self-styled “Blairiste” his prime minister is a gamble that may pay off. For president Hollande that is, if not for France.