A few hours after taking office on May 15, 2012, François Hollande, the new French president, rushed to Berlin to meet with the German chancellor. The name of Hollande’s prime minister had barely been announced let alone his full government. There was no time to waste. For all the parochialism of the French presidential campaign, Europe could not wait. The continent may be only a part of France’s problems, but it has always been a key to their solution, and Germany has always been the indispensable partner.
Unfortunately for the French, the presidential election campaign had not given them a chance to hear the full story. The Socialist candidate kept promising he would never surrender to Berlin, and that he would twist Madame Merkel’s arm and renegotiate the fiscal austerity pact to which Sarkozy had agreed. After all, isn’t France the founding mother of the Union, the homeland of Monnet, Schumann, and Delors, and the EU’s second largest economy? Nothing is possible in Europe without France, François Hollande solemnly declared. True. But nothing is possible in France without Europe either.
Asserting himself for years as the spiritual heir of Jacques Delors, the former “grand homme” of the European Commission, François Hollande has always vouched to be “a true European.” Yet, the European chapter of his presidential platform was short and read like wishful thinking: we must create growth, we must launch eurobonds, we must have a more balanced relationship with Germany, and so on.
In reality, the political Left in France has long reeled from its divisions over the referendum on the proposed European constitution in 2005. In charge of the Socialist Party at the time, Hollande supported the constitution but was unable to prevent Laurent Fabius, a former prime minister and now the foreign minister, from fighting alongside the leftist fringe of the party against it.
The French rejected the treaty, and Europe is the new president’s worst political scar. It ached again earlier this year when Socialist members of parliament split over the last eurozone treaty: most of them abstained, some voted against it. But victory is the best way to heal. François Hollande has brought his party back to the Elysée seventeen years after Mitterrand, his role model. Now he can call the tune. But which one?
The French are troubled by an increasingly globalized world. They don’t quite understand where their country now fits on the map. Inhabiting the most pessimistic nation in Europe, if not in the world, according to a recent Gallup survey, the French wonder about grandeur, exceptionalism, and their country’s unique historical role.
“France is not a problem, it is a solution to problems!” Hollande boasted at the start of his presidential campaign. For months, the French had complained that the real issues were not being addressed. The truth is that they didn’t really want to hear them.
France became self-obsessed, disconnected, protected as it were from the outside world by an imaginary Maginot Line—the ill-fated fortifications of the 1930s. The two main candidates, Sarkozy and his Socialist challenger, talked only about domestic issues: education, unemployment—major concerns of course—but also religious rituals for slaughtering meat, city rules for swimming pools, and the price of gas. And, inevitably, they praised “la République,” the favorite incantation of all French politicians competing in historical and literary references—Victor Hugo, Jaurès, Blum, Emile Zola. Elation over a glorious past and the haze of nostalgia help the people forget the uncomfortable complexities of current times.
Nothing was said about China, India, the BRICS, Africa, global warming, the resources of the planet, or demography. Not a word was uttered about structural reforms, the national debt, the need for a leaner state, and the difficulties of maintaining a generous welfare system without reforming it. No mention was made of Europe’s historical and political prowess, the progress the EU has brought to European economies and standards of living, no explanation was given for the eurozone’s ordeals even as they were escalating, and there was nary a whisper of the efforts needed to try and contain them.
True, at the beginning of his campaign, Nicolas Sarkozy told the French they had to copy Germany and undergo former chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s reforms—a Socialist who supports him, he added to no avail. However, after Marine Le Pen’s score in the first round of the presidential elections on April 22, his rhetoric changed radically. Europe became the scapegoat, the Schengen agreements had to be reconsidered, borders and protectionism reestablished, in order to protect France from foreign invasion. The outgoing president also warned about the country collapsing like Greece or Spain should his challenger be victorious.
As for Hollande, he didn’t say much at all—his favorite, and successful, tactic was to avoid potentially divisive issues. In fact, the only candidates who talked constantly about the EU are viscerally opposed to its very existence: Marine Le Pen on the extreme right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the extreme left. In the first round, they collectively gathered as much as 30 percent of the vote.
Add the silent minority within the conservative and Socialist parties—those who in 2005 voted against the constitutional treaty—and you get the picture of a nation more divided on Europe than it is politically correct to admit. Even if most of the elites, the business and financial communities, and a majority of citizens—the old who remember history, the young who look for hope beyond their borders—support the European process, the malaise is there and doubt is growing about its benefits.
France has not yet experienced the pains of austerity and structural reforms, but the French are convinced they have. They blamed Sarkozy either for having launched certain indispensable changes, like reforming the retirement age, or for not having pursued these reforms far enough. Both he and Hollande indulged in bashing the rich, the elites, the banks, and the excesses of “the liberal market economy.” No surprise, given the fact that one out of three people in France is convinced, according to an Ifop poll from 2011, that capitalism is a bad system that should be abolished.
One of the basic reasons for the growing anti-EU movement stems from the idea that another Europe is possible, one that is less market-driven, less liberal, and more oriented toward state intervention and social solidarity. The French loved Europe as long as they were convinced it was like a larger France, true to the same cultural and political precepts. As economies across Europe weakened and the need for structural reforms became more obvious, the Union became an easy scapegoat, even for those politicians who would contribute in Brussels to the regulations they would criticize at home.
Though not a rigid Keynesian, Hollande is no market-oriented liberal either—you wouldn’t find many of those even among French conservatives. During the campaign, he called for growth to be sustained by public spending on infrastructure and new technologies—he explicitly ruled out any loosening of labor laws and called for stricter regulation of layoffs and outsourcing. Yet he is not an ideologue—he is certainly the only leader capable of bringing the French Socialist Party closer at long last to the common European model of social democracy. He is a man of consensus and compromise—he was indeed blamed in the past for being too much so.
Having been underestimated for so long by friends and foes alike, “Monsieur le Président normal” now takes his revenge. Which way will he go? He knows, and his countrymen too, that this is only the calm before the storm—there will be no "état de grâce", even if so far financial markets have reacted very calmly to his electoral victory. The clash between campaign promises and reality is bound to come.
The composition of Hollande’s first government reflects his political skill but does not reveal any clear orientation in terms of European policies. Both the minister of foreign affairs—Fabius, the only "éléphant" from the old guard—and the undersecretary for European affairs campaigned against the 2005 referendum. Those Hollande supporters who keep rejecting the EU one way or another visibly feel they are well represented at the top. European affairs, however, are primarily conducted by Pierre Moscovici, the economy and finance minister and a staunch pro-European, and under the leadership of the Elysée and Jean-Marc Ayrault, the prime minister, an EU supporter, and a Germanophile.
Hollande’s first performance in Brussels, at an informal leaders’ dinner in May, proved to be good political showmanship. The self-proclaimed champion of growth versus austerity arrived hand in hand with Italian Premier Mario Monti—not quite your typical leftist economist—after having cajoled the conservative Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, at the Elysée earlier in the day. There was no Franco-German pre-summit reunion Merkozy style, no evidence of Frangela or Merhollande in the making. Hollande kept pushing for eurobonds in spite of Merkel’s stern rebuttal, but he did not mention once the need to renegotiate the fiscal compact treaty, one of his favorite anti-Sarkozy arguments during the campaign.
This could be the kind of compromise Paris is hoping will come about if Madame Merkel becomes more open to eurobonds and the mutualization of public debts. The French president has been seeking support to that end from the SPD—Germany’s opposition Social Democratic Party—which could possibly become part of a new coalition after the German general election next year. But Paris has to face facts: there is no way Berlin will agree to pay for the spendthrift Southern Europeans, including the French, without concrete steps toward structural reforms.
The problem with policymaking in democracies is that it has to accommodate conflicting priorities at an accelerated pace. As Greece is on the brink of chaos and Spanish banks go down the drain, Hollande and his team, preoccupied with parliamentary elections, are oddly out of tune. On June 17, the same day the Greeks voted for Europe and a new political majority, they won a decisive victory, gaining full control of the National Assembly. No need to compromise on Europe—the Greens and the extreme left have clearly been defeated with only a few seats in the new House. But there are also no more excuses to dally: for all the talk about growth, it is now time to face reality and the structural reforms which any compromise with Berlin will eventually ask for.
In early June, Chancellor Merkel demonstrated that she is indeed the only European leader capable of political initiative. With the support of the SPD after a deal over the financial transactions tax, she did not mince words: if the eurozone countries want to save their currency and some of their fellow members, they have to agree on a more federal approach. Europe should go for a two-speed EU, with the faster group seeking deeper integration, such as a fiscal union, to complement the monetary union. “We need more Europe, we need not only a monetary union, but we also need a so-called fiscal union, in other words more joint budget policy,” Merkel said according to Bloomberg. “And we need most of all a political union—that means we need to gradually give competencies to Europe and give Europe control.” It may be a complicated process in the long term, and it is a political warning shot to Paris.
François Hollande has no choice but to respond. A European summit is set for the end of June. “Everything has to be put on the table!” the French president insisted. He may seek a text complementing the fiscal compact and emphasizing growth, the way Lionel Jospin did in 1997 when he threatened not to sign the Amsterdam treaty—it didn’t change much but looked like a political victory. In turn, the chancellor needs to adjust to the widespread calls for growth and show some flexibility as long as the fiscal austerity doctrine is not put in denial.
Time is getting shorter by the day. From Greece, to Spain, to Ireland, those European citizens who suffer from stifling austerity measures are calling for hope. Financial markets need daily reassurance. “France is a great country,” the new French president declared in his inauguration speech in early May. “It is up to us to forge a new path for Europe!” Yes, but which one? And with whom?
For the past fifty years, French and German leaders have been compelled to get along. Some did so famously, whatever their political affiliations. The Union has gone forward, albeit in its unique, haphazard way. Europe cannot keep crumbling apart. It is time for responsible leadership on both sides of the Rhine.
Christine Ockrent is a journalist and writer based in Paris.
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