François Hollande and the Beanstalk

France's president hoped that the eurozone crisis could shoot him to new political heights -- or at least get him re-elected. But the moral of this fable might be closer to home than he realizes.


What would Charles Perrault, the 17th-century French fairy-tale writer and author of “Cinderella” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” have to say about the eurozone crisis? And how would the Brothers Grimm, Perrault’s German counterparts, make sense of the endless fight between the Troika and Athens?

We find a suggestion, of sorts, in “Peasants Tell Tales,” the classic essay by cultural historian Robert Darnton, who compared the French and German versions of “The Fig Basket,” a tale of a humble peasant (Benoît in French, Hans Dumm in German) attempting to win the hand of a princess. The hero must overcome a series of seemingly impossible obstacles set by the king. Yet, while the German peasant obeys the rules of the game and never dreams to question the king, his French double happily bends and breaks the rules, all the while talking circles around his master.

This is not an exception. Benoîts abound in the pages of Perrault, Darnton argues, while Dumms always do as they are told in the Gothic script of the Brothers Grimm. Time and again, the cultural historian observes, the French hero chats and cheats his way to “the same point that his German counterpart reached by hard work, obedience, and self-degradation.”

Can we take from this any lessons to help us interpret “The Eurozone Follies,” the fractured fairy tale now playing out in Brussels and Berlin, Paris and Athens? That tale stars French President François Hollande as Benoît, or Petit Jean (the Gallic Jack the Giant Killer), the sort of plucky French hero hatched under the wings of Mother Goose. Their backgrounds certainly seem similar: Smaller and poorer then his antagonist, Hollande also had few natural resources, and even fewer allies, to call upon. Moreover, his task seemed even harder than scaling an enormous beanstalk and returning with a treasure. Not only did he have to save a fellow peasant from the maws of a fearsome beast, but he had to remain in the good graces of the very same beast. It appears Hollande may well have succeeded, but with a tragic twist: While our Petit Jean might have saved the eurozone, if only for now, the eurozone will probably not save him come his re-election bid in 2017.

When Hollande came to office in 2012, he did so partly on the promise to loosen the European Union’s austerity policies that had stymied, he claimed, France’s battle against unemployment. When his efforts to persuade German Chancellor Angela Merkel came to naught, opponents on both the left and right lambasted him as either unwilling or unable to make France’s case for greater fiscal autonomy. Hence the godsend of the current crisis: It offered Hollande a chance to win back credibility as a mover and shaker both at home and abroad. As the crisis festered, it became clear that Merkel needed him as much as did Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the Greek government. For both sides, he was the one honest broker to be found who would enable the deal neither of them wanted to make.

As Hollande was happy to tell anyone with a microphone or steno pad, Grexit was not on the agenda — even after Greece’s July 5 referendum. The day after the world learned the meaning of oxi, Merkel traveled to Paris, at Hollande’s request, to discuss the vote. Before settling down to a tête-à-tête in the Élysée palace, the two leaders spoke briefly to the media. Merkel emphasized, unsurprisingly, Greece’s responsibility for the current mess. Hollande, however, begged to differ, if ever so slightly. His hands tightly gripping the podium, the French president declared that Europe — or, at least, his idea of Europe — requires both responsibility and solidarity. The challenge, he concluded, was to find the balance between these two imperatives.

If this amounted to an economic and diplomatic squaring of the circle, polls consistently showed this was what the French wanted from their leader. Despite the rise of chauvinism at the far ends of France’s political spectrum, a solid French majority wants to maintain the euro and close ties with Germany. In fact, in the wake of the Greek referendum, an Ifop/Le Figaro poll revealed that nearly twice as many French had greater confidence in Merkel than in Hollande — 44 percent versus 24 percent — to resolve the crisis. Tellingly, another poll suggested the French did not want to turn to the German chancellor for leadership rather than their own president: A substantial majority (nearly 60 percent) felt that Hollande wasn’t sufficiently “making France’s voice heard” in the debate over Greece’s fate.

In the end, Hollande did make his voice heard with the Germans, but made it heard even louder with Tsipras and the French public. Lambasted by his once and future opponent, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, for having nursed the Greek leader’s hope that he could redefine the negotiations, Hollande realized that if he was going to play Benoît, it would have to be not with Merkel, but with his Greek counterpart. Appealing to Tsipras to “help me to help you,” Hollande pleaded with the Greek prime minister to show greater flexibility in the negotiations with the eurozone leaders. He also sent a team of specialists to Athens to help the Greek government write an austerity plan that would be acceptable to the currency union’s increasingly impatient finance ministers.

All the while, the Élysée was playing up the challenge confronting Hollande. One unnamed “friend” of the president confided to the media that the odds were less than even that Hollande would succeed to prevent the looming Grexit. It was clear that several Northern European countries were at best dubious, at worst hostile, to offering yet another bailout to Greece. But Hollande knew that the weight of Finland or the Baltic states mattered little in the balance against Germany. He also grasped that even the fury of German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble could not blind Merkel to the long-term consequences of allowing a Grexit. The chancellor was even more reluctant to go down in history as the German leader who oversaw the implosion of the EU than she was to confront her irascible finance minister.

To his credit, Hollande skillfully massaged the crisis. He presented himself as the sympathetic, yet tough arbitrator between two determined opponents, all the while convinced that Merkel and Tsipras were in effect bound by overwhelming forces to come to an agreement. When they did, the timing could not have been better: The deal was announced on the eve of Bastille Day. During the traditional July 14 interview from the Élysée, Hollande claimed credit for pulling off what had seemed to be an impossible synthesis. On the one hand, he modestly allowed that it was Europe, not France, that had won this contest; on the other, he insisted that “France had played its role.” But the president’s modesty, like Benoît’s, soon gave way to a bit of crowing: Leaning over the presidential desk, Hollande proudly asked his interviewers whether any other president had ever been “as audacious as me.”

While Hollande was perhaps as audacious as Benoît or Petit Jean, he might soon find himself eating crow. The Socialists have hailed his role, leading one journal to dub him a “superstar,” but it is not at all clear that this victory will translate into what he wants most: votes. The president surely found little to cheer in a poll taken after the crisis’s resolution. Scarcely one in five voters approved of his performance. This is unsurprising: Counting up the winners and losers in Brussels will mean much less to French voters than the winners and losers in a French economy that continues to flat-line. Even Hollande was forced to recognize this reality during the interview, repeating his pledge not to run again in 2017 if France’s rising unemployment rate had not been reversed by then. But this may prove too fantastic a plot twist even for Perrault. And the moral to this particular tale might well be: “C’est l’économie, stupide.”

Image credit: PHILIPPE WOJAZER/AFP/Getty Images

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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