L’Affaire Baraçois Hollandbama

American and French politics seem to be devolving in parallel. That's bad news for the left in both countries.


Last week, President Barack Obama and his counterpart in Paris, François Hollande, both reached significant milestones in their respective tenures in office. With his party’s epic failure in the midterm elections, Obama entered the "lame duck" last quarter of his presidency, while Hollande hit the midway point in his five-year term. In light of these developments, Obama took stock of his losses from the East Wing of the White House; Hollande took part in a theatrical airing of grievances with "average voters." But given the dire condition of their presidencies, both men could easily have held their conferences from a hospital’s intensive care unit. On both sides of the Atlantic, campaigns launched with the promise of hope and change have landed with brutal thuds.

Yet these thuds have had very different institutional and political echoes, and perhaps consequences, in France than they have in the United States. French and American politics may look like mirror images — the countries are sister republics, after all — but they are not carbon copies. The French and American presidencies remain governed by very different laws and expectations. And the impacts of Hollande’s unpopularity could be far more calamitous for France than Obama’s sagging approval ratings are for America.

Slightly more than a month before the Democrats lost control of the Senate in Washington, Hollande’s Socialists were run out of the Palais du Luxembourg, the ornate residence of the Senate in Paris. French senators do not enjoy the same institutional powers or popular legitimacy that (at least in principle) their American cousins do — they are indirectly elected and have limited means to shape government policies — but the sweeping victory of the opposition Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) in September was yet another a slap in the face to Hollande and his party in a year of defeats that included the municipal and European Parliament elections in March and May, which were swept by the UMP and the extreme right-wing National Front.

Electoral defeats aside, the French president can still envy Obama in some ways. Obama’s anemic poll numbers look downright cheery compared to Hollande’s abysmal ratings. A Huffington Post poll last week put Hollande at a new low: Only 12 percent of respondents approve of his performance. For a president who prided himself as "Monsieur Normal," a popularity rating that now hovers at single digits has, unfortunately, become the new norm. While Hollande continues to insist his skin is as tough as leather, the fact that even a majority of Socialists — 54 percent at last count — disapprove of his performance must be especially painful.

Similar personal traits explain, in part, both Obama and Hollande’s evaporating public support. Both men are perceived as detached and dispassionate, ill-suited for schmoozing and sympathizing, more at ease with the detail side of policy than the retail side of politics. Last week’s press conferences did little to change popular perceptions of either man.

Obama, standing behind the podium at the White House the day after his party’s disastrous showing in the midterm elections, fielded questions from journalists. But Hollande could not afford such a comfortable setting. In what commentators called an all-or-nothing gambit, the French president found himself sitting at a crescent-shaped table with four "ordinary" citizens from different walks of life in an event put together by the TV network TF1. Hollande’s assignment was to answer his fellow citizens’ questions about their own particular difficulties, which, given France’s moribund economy, revolved around issues of employment. (Two of the guests were jobless, a percentage that far outstripped the national unemployment rate of nearly 10 percent.) Most observers concluded that Hollande flunked the test. While his wonkish side waxed in the give and take, his empathetic side waned to the point of invisibility. Visibly nervous at the start, Hollande rolled out long lists of programs and initiatives in reply to his interlocutors, who seemed less interested in the nuts and bolts answers of a mechanic than the inspiring and inclusive plans of a grand architect. Indeed, he sounded strikingly like Obama on Obamacare, attempting to explain the difference between a penalty and a tax.

Tonal similarities aside, there is a crucial difference between Monsieur Obama and Mr. Hollande: Whereas the Affordable Care Act has benefitted millions of Americans, Hollande’s timid economic reforms, introduced last December, have failed to improve the lives of the French. The number of unemployed reached nearly 3.5 million in September, prompting the minister of labor to admit that the government had so far failed in reversing the trend. In past news conferences, when Hollande discussed his efforts to revive the economy, he referred to his "tool box." He failed to rise above this level of pale and plaintive rhetoric in this most recent conference, either, much to the dismay of the 70 percent of French voters who have, in several polls, expressed their pessimism over the nation’s future. 

In fact, Hollande’s technocratic reflex, shared by much of the Socialist leadership, has contributed to a slow, but radical change in French voting patterns. Just as growing numbers of lower-middle class and blue-collar Americans view the Democratic Party as divorced from their everyday realities, so too are their French analogs breaking their historic ties with the left. The frontiers between France Bleue and France Rouge are shifting.

In his recent and controversial book about voting patterns, La France Périphérique, sociologist Christophe Guilluy focuses on "metropoles" like Paris, Lyons, Lille, and Toulouse, home to professional classes that have benefitted from the great technological and commercial changes in France over the past half-century. Like their American counterparts, they tend to vote with the left or center. This is not the case, however, for those unable to afford the cities and unwilling to remain in suburbs that, due to presence of immigrant communities, they no longer recognize as "their own." Instead, they have moved to the exurbs and rural area and, in the process, have become peripheral to the concerns of the traditional left. According to Guilluy, the Socialist Party, not to mention the UMP, has failed to "measure the ideological and cultural abyss that now separates them from these modest social classes." Just as urban Democrats wonder what’s the matter with Kansas, so does France’s "gauche caviar" ponder what gives with the provinces.

But for the ascendant far-right National Front (FN), as with the Tea Party, the question needs to be reversed: What’s the matter with the metropoles? There are important differences between the FN and Tea Party, not least the fact that Tea Partiers demand less government, while the FN insists on a strong state. Yet the similarities, and the impact they have had on the political landscapes, are even more important: Anti-liberalism courses through the veins of both movements. Just as an increasing number of Tea Party supporters oppose free trade, the FN has relentlessly lambasted the open borders and single currency imposed by the European Union. Just as leading Tea Party politicians, like Rand Paul, are identified with a Fortress America worldview, the FN’s Marine Le Pen is the principal architect of Fortress France. Her dim view of France’s foreign interventions extends to what she considers to be foreign interventions in France — namely, the rules and laws radiating from Brussels.

A raft of public opinion polls this fall found that Le Pen will win enough votes — between 25 to 30 percent — to reach the second round of the 2017 presidential election. Worryingly for the left, the same polls reveal that no Socialist candidate would survive the first round. But in the event of a hypothetical runoff, Le Pen would trounce Hollande in the second round by more than a 10-point spread. Le Pen has succeeded in hauling the FN, which was founded by her father in the 1970s, from the political outback into the center of political life. In her effort to modernize the party, Le Pen has purged it of the motley collection of Vichy apologists, classic anti-Semites, fascist thugs, and Catholic reactionaries. In fact, one of Guilluy’s more unsettling claims is that the typical FN voter’s profile has evolved as the party itself has: While the FN remains deeply xenophobic, its supporters are not obsessed with race nearly as much as they are with finding a stable job.

Guilluy worries that the Socialist Party "thinks FN voters are stupid" — namely, that the Socialists, and indeed all the mainstream parties, are deaf to the financial fears and cultural confusion felt on the periphery. One suspects that Hollande, who according to his ex-partner Valérie Trierweiler, mocked the unemployed as "les sans-dents" (toothless ones), shares the same sentiment expressed by Obama in 2008, when he spoke of "bitter" working-class voters "clinging to their guns."   

The American political system has the constitution, both literally and figuratively, to survive a weakened president. Obama will leave the White House with his own reputation battered; he may even set back his party in the next round of elections in 2016. But the U.S. political system will go unchanged. In France, the stakes are higher. Though its form is hybrid, shared between a directly elected president and a prime minister representing the majority party in the National Assembly, the resident of the Elysée remains the final arbiter. This is precisely how the founder of the Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle, wanted it. Indeed, instead of seeking a one-size-fits-all Elysée, de Gaulle wanted an office he knew he alone could fill: given the crisis facing France in 1958 when he took power and introduced the new republic, de Gaulle alone could meet the new office’s great expectations.

In its post-mortem of Hollande’s roundtable flop, Le Monde, whose existence was long defined by its hostility to de Gaulle’s authoritarian bent, lamented that the French had hoped not for an "ordinary president," but one who instead embodied the nation’s "authority and sovereignty." In the absence of such providential figures — as well as the presence of faux saviors like Le Pen — the time perhaps has come, as a growing chorus of supporters of a Sixth Republic insists, to replace not the holder of the office, but the office itself.

Even sober and serious political figures like François Bayrou, leader of the centrist Democratic Movement party, are fearful of the longer-term political consequences of a president with a near total absence of public support. They are calling on Hollande to dissolve his government and call for new elections. More generally, Hollande’s performance has fueled criticism, on both the left and right, of the Fifth Republic more generally. There are several movements that are now calling for a constituent assembly to write a new constitution.

Hollande may very well be not just an unpopular French president, but the last one. No matter how Obama is remembered in history, he won’t have brought down the American Republic.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.


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