Is France on the brink of revolution? Is President Francois Hollande in danger of being dragged to the guillotine? These sound like silly questions. In fact, they are silly questions. Yet, talk of a new revolution is surprisingly common in France these days. This week’s edition of Le Point, a leading news weekly, asks on its cover: ‘Are we in 1789?’ and illustrates the question with a picture of Hollande, dressed up as Louis XVI — the hapless monarch executed by the revolutionaries. Even academics are making the comparison. Dominique Moisi, a visiting professor at the University of London, has argued that the president “looks ever more like a modern Louis XVI” and that France is in the grip of a “regime crisis”.
Perhaps it was the delightful spring weather in Paris last week, but I had difficulty sniffing revolution in the air. The question that perplexed me instead was why the public and intellectual mood in France is so dark.
It is certainly true that things are not great. The economy is entering recession. Unemployment is high. National debt is rising. Jerome Cahuzac, the Budget Minister, has just had to resign because it was revealed that he had a secret bank account in Switzerland. Hollande, in office for less than a year, has an approval rating of just 26 per cent.
Yet, judged by the condition of most of its neighbours, France’s situation is not so bad. The government budget deficit this year may come in at 3.7 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), while Britain’s is 7.4 per cent. France’s national debt is now more than 90 per cent of GDP (a figure once deemed significant) — but Italy’s debt is more than 125 per cent. Its unemployment rate is a painful 10.6 per cent, but in Spain, it is now more than 26 per cent. Unlike Spain and Italy, the French are still able to borrow at rock-bottom interest rates from the markets. The French economy is still the fifth largest in the world. And while Hollande may be unpopular, at least France has a president. In Italy, after several failed attempts to agree on a new head of state, the political parties have just had to ask Giorgio Napolitano to serve a second term. He will be 94 when he steps down.
The backlash against Hollande, however, may be partly about unfulfilled expectations. He campaigned as the man who would reject “austerity” and soak the rich. Yet, the government is committed to further spending cuts and the effort to create a top tax rate of 75 per cent has degenerated into farce after setbacks in the courts and a high-profile row with film star Gerard Depardieu. The Cahuzac affair sent a disastrous message about hypocrisy at the top. The drumbeat of news about job cuts is demoralising. Polls show that high unemployment is the single biggest source of dissatisfaction with the current president.
Hollande campaigned as a “normal” man, in contrast to the “bling” presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. However, there is a fine line between being normal and being unpresidential. Some of the grandeur of a Jacques Chirac, the guile of a Francois Mitterand or even the hyperactivity of a Sarkozy may be helpful.
Yet, much of the rage at the French president seems overdone. True, he has not yet restored order to the national finances, but no French government has delivered a balanced budget since 1974. The economy is struggling, but it is hard to engineer a boom when big markets such as Italy and Spain are in a deep slump. Hollande may not inspire and he currently looks accident-prone. However, he is clearly intelligent and serious.
Nonetheless, there is a mood of near-hysteria among the French commentariat. In the same week that Le Point evoked 1789, its centre-left rival, Le Nouvel Observateur, ran a cover story asking: ‘Are we heading back to the 1930s?’ Both left and right are succumbing to a nihilism that has deeper roots than mere disillusionment with the president.
The real problem may be that the twin pillars on which the much-vaunted “French exception” has been built since 1945 are wobbling. At home, France took pride in its “social model” of a powerful and generous state. Overseas, the country’s global power was to be rebuilt through an European Union constructed around a “Franco-German motor”.
The EU, however, is now in deep crisis. And the pretence that it is being jointly run by France and Germany has been stripped away by the gap in economic performance between the two nations — plus the fact that Europe’s austerity policies are so clearly designed in Berlin.
The certainty of further cuts in public spending underlines that France’s vaunted social model has peaked. That may not be a bad thing. Even Hollande has acknowledged that a state that consumes 56 per cent of GDP is too large. However, there is little public appetite for reform in France. Indeed “markets” and “liberalism” have become even less popular in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
Instead, both the far right and far left — which together garnered about 30 per cent of vote in the last presidential election — are making gains in the polls. The spectre of political extremism is stoking the talk of political upheaval.
It could also be that, without a convincing vision of a European future, commentators are tempted to look back to a glorious and turbulent national past. Yet, the prosaic truth is that it is not 1789, it is 2013 — and France is simply going to have to get on with the hard and unglamorous task of economic reform.