If economic growth were correlated with ministerial hyperactivity, France would be bouncing back from recession even faster. President François Hollande has instructed his ministers to minimise time spent with their nearest and dearest, and told them that if they must take a break, it has to be in France, ideally punctuated with visits to local factories and employment agencies. Unemployment does not take a holiday, he explained.
To underline the point, the presidential spokesperson declared portentously that “power will not be on holiday” this year. Furthermore, ministers have been set homework: the whole cabinet must be back on parade at the Elysée Palace on August 19, ready for a discussion on the state of France in 10 years’ time.
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Mr Hollande has set an example himself. This week he was in La Roche-sur-Yon near the west coast to mark the signature of an agreement with an employer to recruit long-term unemployed people to fill vacancies. The obliging company? KFC.
The notion that the French might work in August, and praise the achievements of US fast-food outlets, will trigger cognitive dissonance among those of us who admire the French talent for combining labour and lifestyle. But even stronger than expected economic growth in the second quarter of this year, revealed by statisticians on Wednesday, will not dispel French anxieties about whether their model is sustainable. On Bastille day, Mr Hollande said that the economy was on the turn and that unemployment would soon begin to come down. But 85 per cent of those polled think that he is wrong on unemployment– as does the International Monetary Fund.
It is curious that politicians seem to believe that their perambulations can make a difference, especially when at some level they must know that the visits they undertake are chosen to coincide with some development that was happening anyway. Perhaps they do understand that and only think that gullible voters believe they are doing something useful. But such cynicism is not a peculiarly French vice. So apart from these symbolic gestures, what strategy can we discern?
An agenda of sorts was provided by Louis Gallois, the former chief executive of EADS. His report last year, critical of French taxation and spending policies, was “welcomed” by the government. But the Gallois recommendations are problematic. Labour market reform is difficult for a government with deep union roots and cuts in taxes on labour are constrained by France’s tight budget position. It must meet the EU’s fiscal deficit target of 3 per cent of gross domestic product by 2015, which will be a stretch if growth does not recover. Public spending is at 56 per cent of gross domestic product, 10 points higher than in Germany.
So with unemployment at 10.8 per cent and rising, it is perhaps not a surprise that Mr Hollande’s popularity is at historic lows. In June only 26 per cent of voters said they approved of his performance. The government’s strategy owes more to that distinguished 19th century macroeconomist Wilkins Micawber than to Mr Gallois. Mr Hollande’s team is hoping something will turn up – a strong US recovery, a eurozone revival, even a resurgent UK – to boost French exports. It is not an elegant posture.
All this might suggest that autumn in Paris will be hot, and not only because Mr Hollande has decreed that summer ends on August 19. But the president has one strong trump card in his hand – the opposition. Nicolas Sarkozy’s re-emergence as a potential presidential candidate has set the cat among the pigeons of the rightwing UMP party. Former prime minister François Fillon, who might otherwise have expected to run himself, is furious, pointedly refusing to applaud a Sarkozy speech to the party faithful. His mood was not improved by the news that improper spending by the Sarkozy campaign has caused the withdrawal of state financial support, putting the party’s finances into severe deficit.
Mr Fillon is now engaged in a campaign to denigrate Mr Sarkozy’s achievements in office, a delicate task since he was prime minister throughout. His attempts to, as Le Monde puts it, “décrédibiliser” Mr Sarkozy will damage the right as a whole in the short term.
With enemies like these, Mr Hollande can do without friends for a while. But if he is not to be condemned as a canard boiteux (lame duck) president, he will need to gain some momentum. Rumours of a reshuffle continue to circulate. Mr Gallois himself and Pascal Lamy, now liberated from the World Trade Organisation, may be offered roles. Certainly something more than a holiday from holidays is going to be required. Mr Hollande should recall that Mr Micawber had to emigrate to Australia, to run a bank, to restore his fortunes.
The writer is a professor at Sciences Po in Paris, chairman of the Phoenix Group, chairman of the UK Airports Commission and a former executive chairman of the FSA