Hollande under pressure to show hand

François Hollande risks becoming  the "Jimmy Carter of the French left", commentators say, referring to the former U.S. president.

Story highlights

  • Tensions within the government has resurrected questions about Mr Hollande's leadership abilities
  • Experts say it's hard to know how committed Hollande is to the 'new economic model' he says he seeks
  • Political turning point may come at year's end when decision is to be reached on labor market reform

As if a bruising battle with steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal were not enough, François Hollande's socialist government this week got itself into an unlikely punch-up with Obelix, the invincible comic book symbol of plucky French resistance against foreign invaders.

Or, at least, it went on the attack against the imposing figure of actor Gérard Depardieu, whose latest film appearance was to reprise the role of Obelix, for his apparent move to Belgium to escape Mr Hollande's high tax policies.

Mr Depardieu, who has put his equally imposing house on Paris's Left Bank up for sale for an estimated €50m, was labelled "pathetic" and unpatriotic by Jean-Marc Ayrault, the prime minister.

Mr Ayrault's irritation was understandable: the heavily reported story added to a growing mood that the Hollande government, in office for just eight months, is bending under the pressure of events, suffering from internal tensions and struggling to present a coherent set of policies to confront rising unemployment and a sclerotic economy.

It has revived questions frequently posed during this year's presidential election campaign about Mr Hollande's leadership abilities -- and his commitment to drive through economic reforms demanded by his European partners.

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Writing this week in Les Echos, the financial newspaper, Edouard Tétreau, a professor at HEC business school, said there was a danger that Mr Hollande was "the Jimmy Carter of the French left . . . full of good intentions but who would drag his country into humiliation, degradation and recession".

Critics of the president say he is proving to be what his political enemies have always claimed -- a soft-centred leader who shies away from tough decisions and lacks a clear vision for the country.

    "Hollande is primarily a domestic political tactician. What he always weighs is the strength of his party and the other parties. His decisions are always made in the context of the next election," says a person close to the Socialist establishment.

    The Mittal episode highlighted his difficulties. Ahead of a meeting with Mr Mittal, the president publicly appeared to back a threat to nationalise the disputed French ArcelorMittal site made by Arnaud Montebourg, his leftwing industry minister.

    Mr Montebourg was then slapped down by Mr Ayrault, who reached a compromise deal with the company. Mr Ayrault -- and Mr Mittal -- made it clear that Mr Hollande was never serious about the nationalisation option. Mr Montebourg threatened to resign, but Mr Hollande intervened to keep him in government, weakening Mr Ayrault.

    Laurent Bouvet, political scientist at the University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin, says Mr Hollande's "permanent quest for compromise" makes it hard to establish how committed he is to what Mr Ayrault and Pierre Moscovici, the finance minister, have called a new French economic model -- as evidenced by a recent €20bn plan to boost corporate competitiveness.

    "That is the problem. It is very difficult at the moment to know if the reorientation of policy is really a strategic change or simply a pragmatic response to the economic situation," says Mr Bouvet.

    Mr Ayrault, too, has been sending decidedly mixed signals. In a newspaper interview last weekend he said: "[The government] is of the reformist and social democratic left which believes that growth and jobs are not decreed but have to be created." But on Thursday he protested to reporters that he was not a "social-liberal" but was leading "the most leftist policy in Europe".

    Mr Hollande has also described himself as a social democrat -- a more loaded term on the French left than in other European countries. He has spoken of the need for "historic decisions". In private meetings, business leaders say he clearly understands the need for reform.

    But his characteristic pragmatism has also led him to be cautious about upsetting the hard left; not just keeping Mr Montebourg on board but also keeping two Green ministers in cabinet, despite their party's opposition to key elements of his European and economic policies.

    A turning point may come at the end of the year when a decision is due on reforms of France's complex and rigid labour market regulation, currently the subject of talks between employers and the trade unions. "That will be an important test of the capacity of the government and the president to take difficult decisions," says Mr Bouvet.

    Business leaders say that a dose of bracing labour market reform is the magic potion needed to convince them that the president will do the necessary to revive the economy. Obelix famously fell into a vat of such stuff as a baby; Mr Hollande has yet to take a proper gulp.

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