The beleaguered French leader came into office in 2012 as the supposed anti-Merkel. Now she is as strong as ever and he has never looked weaker.
Angela Merkel has just brought down the French government. That, at least, is the way François Hollande’s troubles will be seen on the protectionist left wing of his governing Socialist Party.
Formally, the political turmoil in Paris is the collapse of a government. In effect, however, it is a reshuffle, with the prime minister, Manuel Valls, resigning only to be asked immediately to form a new Cabinet.
The big casualty is almost certain to be Arnaud Montebourg, the powerful economics minister and a figure of no small ambition on the French left.
Hollande’s uncomfortable calculation is whether Montebourg, a robust controversialist, is more dangerous inside or outside his government tent.
Montebourg’s main sin was to question Hollande’s lacklustre attempts to kick-start the flagging economy. But he couched his broadside in anti-German rhetoric, bitterly complaining that Merkel’s domination of European fiscal policy was strangling France and Italy.
It was clear he was demanding that Hollande stand up more forcefully to the German chancellor, comparing the president unfavourably with giants of the European Union (EU) such as Charles de Gaulle and Margaret Thatcher. Through the sheer force of leadership, they had turned European policy-making around single-handedly, Montebourg declared.
The French leader came into office at the height of the euro crisis in 2012 as the anti-Merkel, campaigning against German fiscal rigour, denouncing austerity as the German-scripted answer to Europe’s travails and trying to maintain the Franco-German relationship while concocting a Club Med pact against Berlin with Spain and Italy (discreetly supported by Washington and London).
Three years on, Merkel is as strong as ever. Hollande has never looked weaker. An opinion poll at the weekend put him at 17%, the lowest presidential approval rating ever in the Fifth Republic. No De Gaulle here. Nor Mitterrand.
Unemployment remains stubbornly high, the economy is stagnating, failing to muster the government’s projected 1% growth this year, Hollande needs Brussels to relax its budget deficit targets for France for a third time and his flagship policies amount to a French form of austerity – spending cuts combined with corporate tax breaks. So far, the results are meagre. If and when he fails, there will be plenty more like Montebourg whingeing that Hollande administered the German medicine but the patient failed to respond.
The economics minister is not isolated. An internal Socialist Party policy paper a few years ago, only a draft, featured a bitter attack on the German chancellor and accused Berlin of ruining Europe. It was ditched as too incendiary. But the sentiment persists within parts of Hollande’s party. The same resentments and rancour extend to Italy, Spain and Greece. Although Hollande’s challenge to Merkel faded fast and did not amount to much, all eyes are now on Italy’s new young centre-left leader, Matteo Renzi.
Can he take on Merkel where Hollande failed? The former mayor of Florence appears to be a more convinced reformer of Italy than Hollande is of France. Whether Renzi can deliver is the big question, given the entrenched interests he would need to destroy.
The EU is gearing up for a new regime – a new European Commission, a new EU council president running the summits, a new foreign policy chief. If Merkel is at the zenith of her powers in European policy-making, it may also be that she is passing her peak, vulnerable to a more concerted challenge.
The turmoil in Paris presages more battles ahead in Brussels and between EU capitals as the existential crisis that was the euro emergency turns more political. – ©?Guardian News & Media 2014