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The Impotence of Francois Hollande
Liberté, Égalité…Infidélité?

The apparent paradox of the bump in the polls French President Francois Hollande received following the revelation of his affair with a famous actress is probably best explained by an appreciation of the country’s current deep political crisis. For months, France has been beset by mounting jobless figures, and Hollande’s promise to cure the country’s sclerotic economy by the end of last year went up in smoke—unemployment actually worsened month-on-month in November and again in December. Hollande already ranked as the least popular President in the history of the Fifth Republic long before this embarrassing episode added to his woes, and his recently proposed reforms, though desperately necessary, have further undermined his standing among his own so-called base.

By comparison to all this, a presidential sex scandal—replete with paparazzi shots of the head of state being whizzed incognito to his lover’s pied-a-terre—probably seemed like a welcome bit of comic relief to his fellow Frenchmen. And one glance at Ms. Gayet, the mistress at the receiving end of this affair, reveals that Hollande is capable of getting some things right at least. But wishing to put an end to the “voyeurism” that had entertained the nation in the tabloid press, Hollande finally clarified the circumstances of his private life this past weekend, as the Financial Times reports:

Two weeks after revelations that he was apparently having an affair with an actress, Mr Hollande dialled the mobile telephone of the political editor of the French news agency AFP on Saturday evening. […] He told her that he was separating from Valerie Trierweiler, his partner of some seven years and his ‘first lady’ since he became president in May 2012. […] “I wish to make it known that I have ended the life together that I shared with Valerie Trierweiler,” he told Sylvie Maligorne.

If only it were that easy. The French may pride themselves on their distinctive social norms, and they may even expect these sorts of dalliances from their President, but that doesn’t mean they don’t ultimately hold him responsible for the country’s well-being. If the impression persists that Hollande is too preoccupied with la vie en rose to look after the 3.3 million jobseekers who are, you know, misérables, then the fine line between the political and the private may get blurred yet.

This, moreover, at a time when Hollande’s political fate depends more than ever on the prestige his office bestows. Not only is he trying to goad his countrymen down a path of neoliberal supply-side reforms which they, in voting for him, did not sign up for, but he must also save his party from utter humiliation in the European elections coming up in May. A new poll released yesterday by the newspaper Journal du Dimanche, however, showed the far-right National Front of Marine Le Pen leading the race and Hollande’s own Socialists a distant third.

It remains to be seen what the long-term fallout from France’s latest iteration of presidential intrigue will be. In the short term, in any case, Hollande cannot expect measures like his “responsibility pact” to be passed without problems—or without irony.

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  • free_agent

    You write, “the far-right National Front of Marine Le Pen leading the race”.

    It’s not clear to me that the French are willing to adopt neo-liberal policies, even if that is the only thing that would solve their economic problems. This seems to resemble Argentina, which has followed Peronist policies into disaster multiple times, and yet Peronism remains very popular.

    • TommyTwo

      Indeed. “Right wing” or “conservative” does not necessarily to (neo)liberal free-market economics. The Front National is perhaps best described as populist.

      “Not only is he trying to goad his countrymen down a path of neoliberal
      supply-side reforms which they, in voting for him, did not sign up for”

      The French are very unhappy with their situation. Sarkozy tried to move to the economic right (as Americans would define it); they were unhappy with that. Hollande initially tried to move to the economic left; they were unhappy with that. Joie de vivre?

  • Bruce

    I would ding Hollande in an opinion poll if asked, because I am jealous of his love life. In general, the French wants things easy and they rely on government to provide that for them. It can work for a while, but not forever. They either need to do more things for themselves or live with Hollande’s tax increases. Eventually, even with confiscatory taxation as they are seeing, it still doesn’t work. France needs Libertarianism. LOL

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