A randy, left-of-center President pivots to the center after suffering a humiliating defeat in a midterm election.
Bill Clinton in 1994…French President François Hollande in 2014.
After the drubbing of his Socialist Party in countrywide municipal elections, François Hollande has appointed the popular 52-year-old Manuel Valls as Prime Minister. This comes as a grievous blow to the strong “left of the left” segment of Hollande’s support base, which includes both communists and environmentalists. The left despises Valls. As Interior Minister in Hollande’s first government, he insisted on deporting gypsies resident illegally in France and openly advocated serious structural reform of the French welfare state. In other words, he is Nicolas Sarkozy masquerading as a left-winger—as his admirers, from their own point of view, have also noted.
Whatever the implications for French party politics, the success or failure of Valls could have significant implications for the vexed question of welfare-state reform in general. Though the problems facing France are more drastic than those facing the United States and Britain, the French case is far from atypical, and any reform experiment will bear close watching by others.
And Valls is a genuinely interesting figure. Born to a kind of bourgeois-bohemian family in Barcelona, he became a French citizen at the age of twenty, did mandatory military service, and studied history at the University of Paris. By the standards of the French political class, this background would be considered déclassé. Like Nicolas Sarkozy, Valls was not the beneficiary of the “right” political formation, and, like Sarkozy, he hears about it.
Campaigning for the leadership of the Socialist Party before the previous election, Valls’s was a rare voice of dissent from the troubling new theory (of which there are left- and right-wing variants) that salvation from France’s woes will come from “demondialisation”—deglobalization. Beyond re-introducing a ruinous tariff regime and resisting whatever NATO wants to do, the theory, which promises to revive wages and renew the national spirit, is remarkably short on specifics. To all this, Valls responded that globalization is simply another way of saying modernization: a fact of contemporary life that one cannot control and to which one can simply try to adapt, like it or not.
Serving as Hollande’s Interior Minister, Valls has been quite strong in confronting the new wave of anti-Jewish incitement and violence in France. In response to the comedian Dieudonné’s “Quenelle,” the “anti-establishment” hand gesture reminiscent of the Nazi salute, Valls issued a ban on Dieudonné’s performances on the grounds of incitement and refused to back down. Growing French anti-Semitism, as Michel Gurfinkiel has documented, stems from a malaise far deeper than any politician can easily solve. Still, for the moment at least, Valls seems to have made Dieudonné and his supporters fearful enough to return underground.
With Valls as Prime Minister, will France succeed in finally resuscitating its moribund economy? The first thing to note is that much is out of his hands. The Prime Minister in France serves almost entirely at the whim of the President. Although Hollande is at risk of becoming the least popular chief executive in the history of the Fifth Republic and clearly sees the need for reform, it’s not as apparent that he has the skill and resolve to carry through, or indeed that he has grasped the immensity of the problem.
What’s more, if much is out of Valls’s hands, much is also out of France’s hands. In the current crisis, as in previous ones, the French strategy has been remarkably consistent: institute piecemeal reforms in order to satisfy creditors, project a high annual rate of growth in GDP that you can’t possibly deliver on, and pray that the global economy will have improved by the time the bill comes due. Then all will be forgiven and forgotten. Craven, immoral—but occasionally effective, at least in preserving the kind of stagnant life to which the French have grown accustomed.
But will the financial markets be so forgiving this time? Will the global recovery, assuming there is one, lift France as well? There are signs that the old formula no longer obtains.
All of which makes the Valls premiership an exceptionally interesting experiment. Previous French leaders, Nicolas Sarkozy included, have told the French public that it really is possible to have it all: cradle-to-grave support, plus economic dynamism; independent French political action, plus the benefits of cooperation with others. What they have not heard is that the old model is broken—that reform is not merely a matter of preserving the “rights” you have already attained but of altering a compact that increasingly damages those rights.
Do François Hollande and Manuel Valls know this? Valls perhaps does, but so far he seems reluctant or unable to say so explicitly—already a bad sign. What’s increasingly clear is if there is to be a French reform, it will not arrive by way of a supposedly more “realistic” socialism but by a transformation of the beloved French model into something else entirely.