PARIS – National stereotypes do not fade easily, especially if those with the greatest influence seem to be doing their best to justify them. Consider the case of France. To outsiders, the land of Molière is a country where political leaders’ extramarital relationships are tolerated, while badly needed economic reforms are not.
But the world could be in for a surprise – or at least half a surprise. When it comes to politicians’ liaisons, continuity may prevail in France; but on the issue of reform, change may be around the corner.
President François Hollande has announced measures that, if implemented, would amount to a peaceful revolution: a major reconciliation with the industrial and business world that even his more energetic predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, dared not attempt, despite – or precisely because of – his more conservative inclinations.
The reality of change, however, has been hampered by the stereotype of continuity. Hollande’s daring pledge of €30 billion ($40.6 billion) in tax cuts to boost the economy has been hijacked, at least in part, by revelations about his private life.
Public-opinion polls following the publication of photographs of a helmeted Hollande riding on a scooter behind one of his bodyguards to an assignation with a movie actress suggest that the French are mildly interested. But the reality is more nuanced.
The French are not morally shocked by such revelations. Though former President François Mitterrand’s second family was virtually a state secret, known only to a select elite and hidden from the public by a reverential press, his mistress and their daughter attended his funeral. And Sarkozy’s tumultuous private life at the beginning of his presidency was on open display.
Unlike the British and the Americans, the French are much less obsessed with sex than they are with financial scandal. Public-opinion surveys reveal an interesting dualism: the French want maximum freedom in the private sphere and maximum protection in the public sphere.
Thus, the French do not criticize Hollande on the ground of ethics, but on the ground of politics. The president of “la Grande Nation,” political heir of the Sun King and General de Gaulle, has made a fool of himself: he looked simply ridiculous on his scooter.
Victor Hugo coined the formula “Napoleon le petit” to describe Napoleon III. Will Hollande, who seems to take so much inspiration for both his public and private life from his mentor and model, France’s first-ever Socialist president, one day be described as “Mitterrand le petit”?
Vaudeville may be a French specialty, like bread, cheese, and wine, but it does not strengthen the dignity and credibility of an already spectacularly unpopular presidency. Hollande wanted to be a “normal president.” In the stolen images of him en route to a tryst, he seems to be outdoing himself. And French humorists – and even politicians – have been quick to play on his vulnerability.
Hollande may be in love with another woman; it does happen. But, if he is, it could not have been revealed at a worse moment, precisely when he was intent on steering the country onto a new, courageous, and badly needed course. One may regret the disappearance of boundaries between private and public life in our global Internet age, but one must adjust to it – and Hollande clearly has not.
Of course, the key question is why Hollande waited 18 months before doing the right thing and helping the French economy by alleviating the tax burden that had been reducing French enterprises’ competitiveness. The official answer is that deteriorating global economic conditions left no other choice.
For some, including me, Hollande was from the start a true social democrat. But, having campaigned as a socialist, and with his own camp’s deep divisions leaving him no real majority in parliament, he could not afford to reveal his pro-industry orientation (he continues to denounce the financial sector) without a significant delay. Whether one calls that realism or lack of political courage, a year and a half has been lost, seriously hampering France and its economy.
Now, however, the country may at long last be headed in the right direction. But it is likely to have a weaker president at the helm. Hollande now has three years to prove that, animated by the right ideas, he can transform his image – and that of France – with economic results, if not by his personal behavior.