Opinion | Columnists

Britain, France don’t need ‘normal’ leaders

Hollande and Cameron’s take-it-as-it-comes approach to premiership is not going down well with voters

  • By Philip Stephens, Financial Times
  • Published: 00:00 September 3, 2012
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Supplied
  • Valerie Trierweiler and French President Francois Hollande during a ceremony in memory of Nazi victims in Tulle, France, in January.

Francois Hollande is approaching an important juncture. The French president’s post-election honeymoon is fading with the summer sun. He has returned from holiday to critical reviews from left and right. It is time for Hollande to set a course. In this he has something to learn from British Prime Minister David Cameron.

I doubt any such idea is welcome in the Elysee palace. Putting aside the always tortured, best-of-enemies quality of the Franco-British relationship, this president and prime minister are scarcely soul mates. Cameron snubbed Hollande during a pre-election visit to London.

He soured things further with silly jibes about rolling out the red carpet for well-heeled French citizens fleeing Socialist tax increases. Perhaps the prime minister will think again now his coalition partner Nick Clegg has called for a wealth tax in Britain.

That said, there are similarities between the two leaders. Cameron reached Downing Street as much because of Britain’s eagerness to throw out Gordon Brown as for his own prospectus. Even after 13 years of Labour, the Tory leader failed to win an overall majority. Hollande, a meticulous but less than inspirational politician, has the unpopularity of Nicolas Sarkozy to thank for his election victory.

Neither man could be called an ideologue. Cameron applied a modernising gloss to the Conservatives to make them a plausible alternative to Labour. Hollande made his way in the Parti Socialiste by never staking out too extreme a position. After the pyrotechnics of his predecessor, he presented himself to voters as a ‘normal’ president. Cameron’s pitch was not much different.

The British government is now in trouble. The economy has stalled and, with it, the deficit-reduction programme that Cameron made a centrepiece of his programme. The country is left with austerity without obvious purpose. There have been fights between the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat partners. A coalition that started out as a shared endeavour now has the feel of a distinctly transactional arrangement.

The government blames the darkening economic clouds across Europe. The euro crisis has certainly not helped. The coalition, though, pulled on too tight a fiscal straitjacket. It should have had a Plan B against the possibility that austerity could prove self-defeating.

In any event, the malaise is as much political as economic. What’s missing is an organising strategy — a map, if you like, with directions for Britain’s future. No one quite knows what ]Cameron stands for. The answer may be nothing much at all beyond a vague set of instincts born of a gilded upbringing in the English home counties.

The ‘Big Society’ inclusive Conservatism of his opposition days has been discarded; the promise of a short, sharp shock to repair the public finances has collided with economic realities.

Sharp but shallow

Among officials, Cameron is habitually described as sharp but shallow — a leader lacking in intellectual curiosity. Some in his own party echo the criticism. The other day a former Tory minister asked aloud if Cameron was “man or mouse”? Unfair, perhaps, but the sentiment struck a chord.

Voters can sense the absence of grip. Occupying the office — even with a certain confident panache — is not enough. The result has been policy paralysis and undignified U-turns. So far the country has just about gone along with tax increases, spending cuts and falling living standards. But its patience has worn perilously thin.

Herein lies the lesson for Hollande. Before the election he promised to square numerous circles. France could have higher taxes and higher growth, more welfare and a smaller budget deficit, increased protection for workers and a sharper competitive edge in the global marketplace. The promises were always extravagant, but voters might at least expect him to have a plan.

Not known for decisiveness and, like Cameron, lacking experience in government, Hollande is already attracting pointed barbs. Unkind observers have drawn a comparison with Henri Queuille. Thrice prime minister during France’s Fourth Republic, Queuille was renowned for ineffectualness. There was no problem, he is reputed to have said, that could not be solved by leaving it untouched.

After so short a time such a judgment on Hollande is overly harsh. But it betrays what my French friends say is a general unease. In ridding itself of the manic Sarkozy, has France moved too far in the other direction? Circumstance demands a strategist. Hollande — again like Cameron — looks too much the tactician.

France faces two almost existential challenges; the first is to find an economic model that offers at once to restore its competitiveness and respect social cohesion; the second is to come to terms with the deeper European political integration — abandonment of De Gaulle’s Europe des Patries — demanded by any serious resolution of the euro crisis. Harder still, France must adjust to German leadership in Europe.

At a different point in history Cameron’s take-it-as-it-comes approach to the premiership might have seen him muddle through. Instead, though outside the Eurozone, Britain confronts political and economic tests comparable to those of France. For a decade it was kept afloat by easy credit and a booming financial services industry. It played the game of being part of Europe and of standing aside from it. Those days have gone.

These are exceptional times for France and Britain alike. They require purpose and activism from political leaders. Hollande is already discovering that being ‘normal’ is not enough. If he harbours any doubts on that score he need only glance across the Channel at Cameron’s troubles.

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