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François Hollande: From One Social Democracy to Another.

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François Hollande: From One Social Democracy to Another.

The sight of President François Hollande as a pudgy Alain Delon, scootering to a gallant assignation with Julie Gayet, has captured the world’s attention. No doubt to be made into a film by the Comic Strip as a hommage to the Nouvelle Vague, this aspect of the Head of State’s life is less important than the other big event last week. At Tuesday’s New Year Presidential Press Conference Hollande announced a major political turn, to “resolutely social democratic policies”.

The former General Secretary of the Parti Socialiste wooed the French employers’, and their organisation, the MEDEF, with pro-“enterprise” proposals. This “pacte de responsabilité” is based on reducing (state) charges on companies. This would be part of an overall reform of taxation, and specifically the gradual abolition of the contribution employers have to make to finance family allowances. Employees will not, he claimed, have to take over responsibility for paying for them. Instead there will be a reduction in state spending and a reduction in the public deficit.

Political Strategy?

For Jean-Luc Mélenchon this declaration was the worst blow to the left since Guy Mollet (Socialist leader in the 1950s) backed the repression of the fighters for Algerian independence. Hollande, the former Presidential candidate of the Front de gauche, stated, was elected to wage war on finance capital. He has now abandoned the battle (Blog 14.1.14). Indeed he had dropped social democracy, the idea that a left government could help share out the wealth produced by growth. Now Hollande, and his Prime Minister, Ayraud, were in reality “social liberals”.

Indeed many people had the impression that Hollande’s objective was to reach out to the Centre. The “pact’s favourable reception by some on the centre-right, such as Jean-Louis Borloo (Union des démocrats et independents, UDI) , suggested an attempt to reach more formal agreement. But “triangulation” is much more probable, as commentators note that the President is reaching out not to right-wing parties but to their electorate (le Monde 17. 1.14)

Taxation and Cuts

What are the assumptions behind this “pact”?

Nasser Mansouri Guilani of the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) in l’Humanité (14.1.14) began by observing that projected growth in the French economy for 2014 satnds at a low 1%, unemployment continues to grow, and investment is also down, France is not prospering.

Holalnde, as Mélenchon notes, criticised the financial system and its responsibility for the 2009 crisis. His Projet Présidential began with a call to assert the sovereignty of the Republic against the market. European measures to protect public services and to regulate banking and finance, including an agency of « notation » were proposed. schemes to reduce youth unemployment, measures to protect the jobs in companies of more than 5,000 employees were taken, and an active industrial strategy – persued by his (left-wing) Minister Arnaud Montebourg, were initiated.

This has not, as we observed, resulted in growth. Guilani puts the responsibility for this on neo-liberal economics. Hollande by contrast has turned to the liberal idea that the « wealth creators » need encouragement. They are held back by too much state taxation. Polices that encourage the « offre », that is those producing for the market, must be put in place. The pact is a way to do this. Much is unclear. The “redefinition” of the principle “missions de l’État” is open to many interpretations. But reducing spending means one thing: cuts

Few have ignored that the basis of the new approach responds to long-standing criticisms from business and political leaders in ‘anglo-saxon’ countries that France is too bureaucratic and the economy is hampered by too much state control. As Jean-Paul Agon, CEO of l’Oréal, put it, these are steps in the right direction (Le Monde. 17.1.14). Next, he stated, is a need to change the taxation rates for high earners.

The protests of the « bonnets rouges » in Brittany and elsewhere against the « eco-taxes » have contributed to this focus on state finance and the « problem » of regulation by public authorities. The right, including the Front National, calls for ever more radical reductions in state spending. Members of the (previously governing) party, the UMP, want to 25 hour week abolished, and privatisations.

With union membership at a feeble 7,6% of employees there is little effective working class opposition. We might even ask that if Hollande’s has proposed a ‘pact’ and the employers have responded yes, whether he feels he needs them. The non Parti Socialiste left, largely the Front de gauche (FdG), has responded with  calls for fiscal justice, but, on the evidence, has been little heard. But then reports equally indicate that the Pacte has not been widely greeted by the public either.

A Failure of Equality.

The Socialist Party’s Déclaration des principes (2008) put equality, as the basis for a critique of capitalism, at the heart of its programme. In Les Gauches Françaises (2012) Jacques Julliard asserted that Hollande represented a « third generation » of social democracy. This had the objective of redistributing wealth, from finance capital to employees. Pierre Rosenvallon, from the social democratic « second Left » wrote, in the influential La société des égaux (2011) (partly inspired by Anthony Crosland) of a reformism that would create « common decency » in a more equal society. In this people’s individuality (« singularité ») would be founded in citizenship and community.

It is hard to see how this will come about under François Hollande’s Presidency. As Serge Halimi has commented neither he, nor his Prime Minster, Ayrault, have shown any « pugnacity » in challenging neo-liberalism (Le Monde Diplomatique. January 2014). This, Halmi asserts, reflects a long-term accommodation to market economics, going back to the time of François Mitterrand in the mid-1980s. After efforts to introduce a state-led socialist programme and nationalisation faltered, they changed direction. Under Mitterrrand’s Prime Minister Laurent Fabius (1984 – 1986) – now Foreign Minister – the Socialists encouraged “winners”. Entrepeneurs such as Bernard Tapie came into Mitterrand’s orbit. We will be watching with interest to see if anything similar happens now.

The French Socialists’ modest proposals to change the course of European Union policies have not been heard. Social democracy is weak in Europe and has become weaker still in recent years. That the German Chancellor and her SPD partners have welcomed Hollande’s latest moves indicates that it is the French Socialists and not the European right that have been persuaded to alter direction.

Equality in any form is no longer a priority. With all due sense of proportion, one could say of this latest turn to the market, as Ernest Bevin might have remarked, that once you’ve opened this Pandora’s Box you never know what Trojan ‘orses might jump out.

Mitterrand’s legacy.

President François Mitterrand was the personality who indelibly marked the French Socialist Party’s transition from a party of opposition to a regular participant in government. His socialism, such as it was, barely developed beyond Victor Hugo’s warm calls for social justice. The ‘Sphnix’ was also famously ambiguous. Apart from a hidden double marital life, Mitterrand harboured more grudges than an entire mountain Albanian clan. (Mitterrand. Philip Short. 2013)

François Hollande had a reputation for normality, good humour, and a more ideological socialism, or rather the social democracy represented in the Parti Socialiste’s humanist critique of finance capital. In the last week we have learnt that he too has a compartmentalised life, and that his political comrades know little of his private character (Kim Willsher. Observer. 19..12014). It is now being said that anybody that does not follow the new line will be excluded from power, though there have been  grumbles from inside his own party, and  partners such as the Greens, (EELV).

Hollande’s presidential campaign was an echo of Mitterrand’s 1981 success. He presented himself as a force tranquille. Is January’s move another copy, this time of the former President’s efforts to divide the right ? Will he act equally ruthlessly against his enemies ? Is this move to the market the sign of abandoning any reformist politics?

Of more importance: will the left, which was paralysed during the Mitterrand years, be able to respond with vigorous opposition?

We certainly hope so.

One Response

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  1. Andrew Coates

    January 20, 2014 at 1:15 pm


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