A poisoned chalice in Paris

We can now expect to see President Francois Hollande exercise his crucial constitutional power to dissolve the National Assembly and call for new parliamentary elections before his term runs out in 2017. This is a time-honored ploy of French Presidents in trouble.
By Martin Walker   |   April 7, 2014 at 7:08 PM

PARIS, April 7 (UPI) -- There are three answers to the question: what should we expect from the new French government led by the former minister of the interior Manuel Valls.

The first is that he will be an isolated figure in his own government, constantly watching his own back as the lone centrist in a council of ministers that is packed by the left. Already there has been a minor revolt among Green party allies on the left of his own Socialist party, quelled only by the threat of dissolving the National Assembly and calling new elections -- which could leave many rebels out of a job.

Valls puts himself in the same camp of rational, pro-market progressives as Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Gerhard Schroeder and Barack Obama. For this he has been rewarded with a front-page condemnation as a "Traitor to Socialism" by the French leftist daily Liberation.

We know, because he has publicly said so, that Valls believes France’s 35-hour week was an economic disaster; that the reversal to retirement at age 60 is fiscal lunacy; and that he thinks his party should evolve from its 19th century shibolleths and stop calling itself socialist. Many of his party comrades will never forgive him.

The second answer is that Valls will inevitably take the blame when the government fails to turn around the economy. Although most European economies are recovering, led by Britain and Germany, France is still looking sickly. Growth is flat, unemployment stands at a record 3.3 million and under European rules Valls has to cut $50 bn euros ($68bn) in public spending over the next three years. He has very little room for maneuver.

Valls is hoping that the European recovery will haul France along in its wake but there is little sign of that happening. The competitiveness of French industry against its key European partners is worse now than it was when the crisis began seven years ago. Against all the odds for a country so fertile in its soils and climate, France is now running a trade deficit on food and beverages. The deficit in the food trade has long been masked by French wine exports but despite sky-high prices for its great vintages, its wines are no longer sufficient to make up for the country’s growing reliance on imported food.

Great hopes have been placed in the Responsibility Pact negotiated with French employers and labor unions, under which companies agreed to hire more employees in return for a cut of $41 billion in onerous payroll taxes. But the employers say that while they want to help, they cannot hire new workers until they have new orders. And only one of the three labor unions still supports the Pact. So this one big idea of President Hollande to cut unemployment while also reducing the tax burden on French companies is proving to be a weak reed.

The third answer is that we can now expect to see President Francois Hollande exercise his crucial constitutional power to dissolve the National Assembly and call for new parliamentary elections before his term runs out in 2017.

This is a time-honored ploy of French Presidents in trouble. Francois Mitterrand began it, launching the era of co-habitation in which he ruled as President of the left with a prime minister and council of ministers from the right. Mitterrand calculated that this would mean the right-wing government took the blame for all the unpopular measures, allowing him to run against them in the next Presidential elections. That was how Mitterrand won his second term in 1987.

The moderate conservative President Jacques Chirac then played the same trick against the left, bringing in the Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, who took so much of the blame for the economic slowdown of 2001 that he was beaten into third place in the 2002 Presidential election by the National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Chirac then cruised to victory for a second term.

For President Francois Hollande, this is now the obvious political strategy, and may be, along with the divisions among the conservatives, his main hope of re-election in 2017. So why did he not call new elections now? Or why not stick with his outgoing prime minister and call new elections next year, giving the conservatives just enough time to become unpopular before Hollande faces re-election?

The most likely answer is that this would have left Manuel Valls as Hollande’s obvious political successor, and quite possibly his rival for the party’s nomination in 2017. By installing Valls as prime minister now, Hollande has thus handed Valls a poisoned chalice.

It is a ruthless, even Machiavellian ploy which will leave the French left without an obvious leader after Hollande’s eventual departure. But then as another French leader, King Louis XV, observed just fifteen years before the French revolution of 1789, "apres moi, le deluge." After me, comes the downfall.

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