Francois Hollande: The Steep Path Ahead in France

The ceremonial change of President in France on May 15, 2012 is based on the ceremonies of the change of Minister at any Ministry even within the same administration.  Although the President of France has a good deal of real power according to the constitution, the change of President has none of the pomp and ceremony of the US President’s inaugural. The new President, his staff and a few political friends are met at the front steps of the Elysee Palace in Paris by the outgoing President. The two Presidents go in together and have a private talk for half an hour. There are very brief speeches of good wishes, but they do not set out a program. The new President accompanies the outgoing down the same steps. The outgoing staff waves, and everyone goes to separate quiet lunches.  In fact, Francois Hollande will have a short lunch as he is flying late afternoon to Berlin to discuss European economic policy and especially to demonstrate the importance of German-French cooperation despite the changes in the French government.

The transition period from the second round of elections on May 6th to the change in power on the 15th is short.  There is a minimum of briefing of the new government. The French government is largely organized by permanent civil servants, and thus the ministries continue with a minimum of changes. Each new minister has a personal staff, usually 10 to 20 people depending on the importance of the ministry.  Otherwise, there are rarely important changes in the administrative corps who consider themselves as “Servants of the State” and not of a particular political party — although some civil servants can be politically active as advisors or members of political discussion groups usually called “clubs” —a term taken over from the English but in use since the French Revolution.

There are likely to be few radical changes in French government policy, neither in foreign policy or domestic programs. During the election campaign, much was made of the differences in policies concerning deficit reduction, economic growth and tax policies between Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy. However, in practice the differences are few between the two men, both of whom are the same age (57) and both have been in politics for a long time.  Francois Hollande in the campaign put his emphasis on the need to improve education and vocational training for youth, along with the need to increase economic production. Nicolas Sarkozy replied that he had tried to take initiatives in education and employment but that things are hard in reality.

There is more a question of style between Hollande and Sarkozy than of content.  Hollande is calm, serious, seeking compromises so that the largest number can move forward together. These were skills that made Hollande a successful Secretary General of the Socialist Party from 1997 to 2008. Sarkozy, on the other hand, is a person of great personal energy, but this trait gave the impression of being everywhere at once, moving from one issue to the next but with few results.

As was repeatedly pointed out during the election campaign, France faces today the same economic and social problems as five years ago when Sarkozy was elected: unemployment —especially among the young looking for a first job or those over 55.  There is a need for some sort of affirmative action to train and integrate the segments of the population which came originally from North and later Sub-Saharan Africa. There is also immigration from within the European Union such as Romania and Bulgaria, as well as from the states of former Yugoslavia and Turkey which are candidate members of the European Union. The monetary union based on the euro has difficulties in setting common policies as debates in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy highlight.

Thus, it is on foreign policy issues and the state of the euro zone that Hollande will meet his first challenges.  In quick order, there will also be the G8 meeting followed by the NATO summit in Chicago. The issues of Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria are likely to be near the top of the agenda as well as the unsettled situation in Libya and Egypt. For historic reasons, there has always been a strong current of interest in the French Foreign Ministry with the Middle East, an interest that is likely to continue.

Francois Hollande’s experience as Secretary General of the Socialist Party has been with domestic issues as is likely to be the case with the ministers of his government who will be announced on 16 May.  The domestic focus will continue through mid-June when the election for Parliament will be held, with domestic issues most likely at the center of what is often called “The Third Round” after the two rounds of the election for President. However, the steep path which Hollande must climb is European, Middle Eastern, and the Aghanistan-Pakistan-Iran trio. It will also be a steep “learning curve”, and he will have to draw upon all the good will and expertise that he can.

Also see : French Elections Reveal Deeper Currents of Political Life

Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.