Written by Hilary Barnes
As France’s economic crisis turns into a full-blown political crisis, the feeling that the government of France’s Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault is nearing the end of its days, only 11 months after it arrived, is spreading fast, with some wondering whether it would also be the end, effectively, of the reign of Francois I of the Vth Republic.
President Francois Hollande when he came into office in May last year made the error of choosing a prime minister who, as it turns out, does not have full control over his cabinet, and in this situation Hollande does not have the prestige to impose his authority either (in France, the directly elected president appoints the prime minister, who forms the government, which is answerable to the National Assembly).
It cannot be long before something gives, probably by the removal of Ayrault and the arrival of a new prime minister, although the president denies he has any such intention.
The shenanigans reached a new crescendo on April 11-12 after three ministers openly criticised the policy of budgetary consolidation being carried out in agreement with the European Commission in Brussels and in accordance with treaties governing the euro zone.
They included Arnaud Montebourg, the controversial minister for industrial “redressement“, who told the left-leaning Paris newspaper Le Monde that:
“A serious budget, if it kills growth, is not serious. It’s absurd and dangerous. We have an insupportable policy in the sense that is a contractive policy.“
He said later that he was attacking the policy of the euro zone, in which case he was right, but not the policy of France, in which case, as it happens, he would also have been right.
He and his two co-dissenters, Benoit Hamon, minister for the “social economy” at the Finance Ministry, and Cecile Duflot, a member of the Ecologists’ party and minister of the environment, were called to order by the prime minister, who told them that the government “has only one policy, not two, and there will not be a second“.
The dissenting ministers might well claim that the president himself has reaped a harvest of his own sowing. He has attacked austerity policy, not only in his election campaign but notably again in an hour-long television interview on March 28.
This puts Ayrault in a difficult situation when he has to insist that ministers toe the line, although Hollande has given the meaning of austerity his own twist, which the ministers may not have registered.
He denies that France’s policy is one of “austerity“: it is one of “rigour“. Austerity is what they have in Portugal, Greece, and Spain – unemployment over 25 % in the latter two. Whether Hollande fools himself we don’t know, but he does not fool anyone else.
If Ayrault has to step down, this raises the question of who might make a prime minister who could herd these particular cats. The name that springs to mind is Martine Aubry, who lost to Hollande in the Socialist Party’s presidential primary contest in 2011, a powerful and determined person, but Hollande detests her.
Whatever happens, the divisions that are shattering the unity of the present government are not going to go away. They are structural faults which can’t be removed until there is another election, either presidential or to the National Assembly.
The first is extremely unlikely, the second perfectly possible, but only if the unity of Hollande’s Socialist Party in the National Assembly crumbles in face of vote of no confidence, and it is too soon to speculate usefully whether this might actually happen.
Hollande arrived in power with two problems, in addition to the economic crisis the country faces: his campaign platform and the structure of his electoral support.
He was elected on a platform of ascribing the country’s economic crisis to the policies of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, of refusal to align France with Germany on budget consolidation policies, and promising to ignite growth and lower unemployment. All three points were a delusion, which has produced disillusion, but not yet mutiny, in the ranks of the government’s supporters.
Secondly, the disparate bunch who gave him 51 % of the presidential vote last year included a core of moderate socialists, but substantial minorities, not least within Hollande’s own Socialist Party, and all represented in the government of Jean-Marc Ayrault, that are protectionist, anti-globalisation, sceptical of the euro system, and convinced that the euro zone’s austerity doctrine is suicidal.
The dissenting voices are growing louder by the day as the pernicious effects of austerity emerge, especially rising unemployment, 10.8 % in February, according to the latest figure (published by the Banque de France), and rising fast.
This poses not only a risk to the present government of France. It is, as The Economist pointed out earlier this year, a bomb that if detonated can cause Europe to explode as well.