The evasive Monsieur Hollande

If he wins,the French will have chosen a man at ease with generalities

Written by New York Times | Published: May 4, 2012 3:03 am

If he wins,the French will have chosen a man at ease with generalities

It was one of those rare political moments when the campaign-screech and repetitive mumbling stopped.

Last week,a French television interviewer asked François Hollande,the favourite to win France’s presidential election on Sunday,if he thought there were too many foreigners in France. Simple question,and one central to a campaign where extremists of the right and left won 30 per cent of the votes in a first-round ballot. Yet Hollande would not answer yes or no. He reached for legalisms instead. The interviewer insisted: “Deep inside,what’s your conviction?” “I’m not a commentator on public life,” Hollande replied. “I am the next president of France.” The polls say so too. And if Hollande wins,the French will have chosen a man at ease with generalities who aspires to be “wilful” and “dignified,” a symbol of “brotherhood” and “bringing people together.”

But he’s not the personification of clarity. As standard-bearer of a programme of “change” — his own watchword — Hollande doesn’t offer explicit and decisive plans for reforms in French economic and civic life,remains silent about the pain and disruption that would come with any serious structural changes,and relies on the lingering unpopularity of President Nicolas Sarkozy to put the Socialists in office.

His friends say charm and amiability are at the centre of his character. His political enemies argue he is an eternal manoeuvrer,more calculating than courageous. And,indeed,Hollande stepped around any word of criticism for the left-wing extremist Jean-Luc Mélenchon when he compared Sarkozy to Vichy’s pro-Nazi collaborators.

Call it elusiveness or sidestepping,Hollande’s approach extends to the Socialist economic programme at the heart of the election campaign and France’s grief. The problem in France is that no sustained growth or real competitiveness can develop without structural reform in key areas like the labour market. For Hollande,that would mean both a clash with the labour unions that turn out the vote for him,and renouncing a Socialist sacrament like the country’s 35-hour work week. In a question-and-answer session at the left-wing newspaper Libération,Hollande was caught skirting anything like a serious explanation of how he would achieve growth. It would come sweet and tender: “First of all,there’s what technological progress can bring us. And there’s the ecological transition,which is a growth factor. Secondly,there’s cooperation between countries,and that’s Europe’s stake.” Thus,a sunshine-and-clear-water remedy,with the additives of incantation and evasion,not deep structural reform.

The EU Commission has,on its own,recommended steps similar to Hollande’s additional calls for assistance from the European Investment Bank,and the EU’s structural funds. But Mario Draghi,president of the European Central Bank,has insisted that only painful structural reforms “clashing with important interests” in member countries — measures of the kind Hollande runs from — will make for sustained growth.

A cabinet minister responsible for European affairs from another core EU country said the candidate,who has described financial markets as his “adversaries” and has no experience at the national government level,knows that as president he must move away from his proposed debt-making projects.

Last week,Hollande unwittingly answered the question of whether a man marked by comfort with evasion can turn into a full-frontal bulwark of frankness and decision in a matter of days. Drowning in cheers at a rally,he assured his backers,“There’s no difference between a campaign and a term in office.”

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