In France, Hollande’s honeymoon period ends

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described a European Union treaty that President Francois Hollande has vowed to renegotiate. The treaty commits each E.U. country to limiting its annual deficit, not debt, to 3 percent of gross domestic product. This version has been corrected.


French President Francois Hollande delivers a speech during a hight level event on the Sahel at the UN tribune on Sept. 26,2012, at the UN General Assembly in New York. (ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
September 26, 2012

After a swell of euphoria over President Francois Hollande’s electoral victory in May and a blissful timeout for summer vacation, France is coming to grips with a harsh reality of high unemployment, tax increases and budget cuts imposed by a flat-lining economy and Europe’s perilous debt crisis.

The realization that tough times lie ahead was slow in coming in part because, during the election campaign, Hollande decried austerity measures outlined by President Nicolas Sarkozy and suggested that renewing economic growth was the best recipe for paring down the debt. Moreover, Hollande promised to renegotiate a treaty committing European Union countries to limiting their deficit to 3 percent of gross domestic product, raising hope that the economic discipline implied in such a goal could be bypassed.

But once installed as president, Hollande settled for a side agreement bundling several previously funded E.U. growth programs with limited impact on the slumping economies of the union’s 27 member nations. Now it is Hollande’s own finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, who is insisting that the treaty must be ratified as is and pledging that his austerity policies will bring France’s deficit level from 4.5 percent to 3 percent during the next year.

The feeling of doldrums has crystallized in recent days over Moscovici’s 2013 budget, which is scheduled to be adopted at a government meeting Friday and presented to the French Parliament for a vote early next month. In it, one figure stands out: the nearly $40 billion needed to balance the budget enough to come close to the 3 percent figure called for in the E.U. fiscal treaty.

In addition, Labor Minister Michel Sapin acknowledged Wednesday what specialists already knew: Unemployment has topped 3 million people, a rate of about 10 percent, and a growing number of companies are announcing layoffs because of zero growth.

Hollande has promised that the budget shortfall will be met from three roughly equal sources: cutbacks in government expenditures, higher business taxes, and higher income taxes or other personal taxes. He has insisted that his measures will be more justly distributed than Sarkozy’s, hitting the well-off harder than the poor, but it is clear that all French families and businesses are going to have to cinch up their belts.

Sarkozy silent; others not

Although Sarkozy holds to a self-imposed silence, his followers in the conservative opposition have seized on the bleak economic situation to intensify criticism of Hollande as inept and of his Socialist Party as naive and out of touch. Francois Fillon, who was Sarkozy’s prime minister, raised fears in a recent Q&A in the newspaper Le Figaro that Hollande could lead the country “into a lasting recession, dragging Europe into a major crisis, with a threat to the European currency.”

From the far left, former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon was even more caustic. Although eliminated from the first round of presidential voting, he said he would have been more able to govern the country “than this gang of penguins.”

Although the threats to Europe and its currency were already intense during Sarkozy’s rule, many French people seem to agree — with Fillon if not with Melenchon. Hollande’s standing in a key opinion poll has plummeted 11 percent age points since vacations ended, to an unusually low 43 percent approval rating in a survey published Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche.

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, minister of women’s rights and the government spokeswoman, said Hollande’s dive in popularity was to be expected given the difficult economic climate, and she sought to brush it off as a temporary phenomenon.

“When we take responsible decisions that were put off far too long by others, it is not surprising that we suffer the effects in the polls,” she said in a television appearance.

But a sense that things are headed in the wrong direction has reached even Hollande’s Socialist Party and its allies.

The Greens, with 17 members in Parliament, voted this weekend not to support the fiscal discipline treaty even though it has two ministers in the government. Bernard Hamon, a deputy finance minister who heads one of the Socialist Party’s left-leaning factions, has kept a politic silence, but some of his followers have vowed to vote no despite appeals from Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

“I call on their sense of responsibility,” Ayrault said in an online interview posted Sunday. “I would like everybody to tell the truth about the consequences of a refusal of the [treaty], that is to say a political crisis in Europe.”

Opting out of agreement

National Assembly speaker Claude Bartolone, a senior figure in Hollande’s government, told a radio interviewer that the 3 percent goal is “unbearable” in France’s current economic situation, no matter what the treaty says. He added that the European Commission, the E.U. executive body in Brussels, should admit this and declare that the goal can be set aside when economic growth lags.

In fact, this is what happened in the E.U. for years. Governments, including France and even Germany, routinely opted out of previous E.U. agreements to limit the deficit to 3 percent of GDP. The fiscal discipline treaty, concluded in December under pressure from Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, was designed to prevent such “crossing your fingers” by imposing fines on governments that borrow over the limit.

In any case, the budget calculations by Moscovici’s ministry are likely to be revised next year. They have been based on a forecast of 0.08 percent economic growth, when a number of French economists say a more realistic prediction is half that.

The European Commission, for instance, has forecast that France will still have a deficit level above 4 percent next year.

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