Swans Commentary » swans.com October 22, 2012  



French Cacophony


by Gilles d'Aymery





(Swans - October 22, 2012)   Cacophony, a word that means dissonance, a discordant sound, has appeared in the French media to depict the growing confusion that is reigning within the five-month-old new government. Couacs ("false notes") have been accumulating from day one. Ministers take it upon themselves to make announcements that have not been cleared and approved by the prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, whose authority is publicly questioned. He has to repetitively put up the barricades, rebuke his ministers, back away from decisions already taken, try to control an open rebellion from entrepreneurs who vigorously oppose the fiscal policies to which they are going to be subjected, control recalcitrant parliamentarians, etc. Meanwhile, President François Hollande has become an invisible man who, when he delivers a speech filled with rhetorical platitudes, is incapable of pronouncing a sentence without pausing in between words. Yet he works behind the scene with the members of the government, leaving his prime minister powerless. Ayrault is left acknowledging that "there are a few errors, it's true, and they must be remedied" (Il y a quelques erreurs, c'est vrai, et il faut les reprendre). They seem to be overwhelmed by the economic crisis they are facing, which they had downplayed during the presidential campaign, and by their governing inexperience.

The entire presidential campaign was about convincing the electorate that the crisis confronting France was really a management problem. All that was needed was to throw the bums (Sarkozy & Co.) out of power and elect a new team with a different vision. François Hollande made a series of some 60 actions he would take as soon as elected. He called them "promises," which turned out to be largely unrealistic, but they offered a message of hope -- and it worked; a pattern that has been repeated in many other European nations and the U.S. Having been out of power for a long time one wonders if they underestimated or ignored the amplitude of the structural socioeconomic crisis, which was so evident to anyone caring to analyze the situation.

After all, in September 2007, then Prime Minister François Fillon, in office for just over four months, delivered a speech in Corsica in which he said: "I am at the head of a state that is in a situation of financial bankruptcy, I am at the head of a state that has been in chronic deficit for 15 years, I am at the head of a state that has not been voting a balanced budget in 25 years." He added, "This cannot continue," and he repeated his promise to bring a balanced budget before the end of the presidential term in office (5 years) -- a promise that has been renewed by the current government. This was a clear acknowledgement that the country had been facing a structural socioeconomic crisis for decades. Note that these words were uttered in September 2007, before the economic crisis went on steroids the following year, compounded by the banking crisis just about one year later in the wake of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in September 2008. The following year, 2009, was disastrous. The economic activity went into a tailspin, consumption contracted, business hiring came to a standstill, industrial delocalization increased, state fiscal revenues considerably decreased...when at the same time the state borrowed heavily on the financial markets to first of all save the French banks and, secondly, inject funds in the economy. By 2010 the government felt that it had more or less stabilized the situation or at least stopped the hemorrhage (though unemployment kept growing). That's when the eurozone crisis hit in full force -- a tidal wave that has yet to subside and that has compelled France to borrow further in order to save the eurozone from imploding. Meanwhile, corporations keep delocalizing, unemployment keeps rising, and state revenues keep falling (or not increasing). The Sarkozy administration, deemed to be the government of the rich class, had to increase taxes on these rich people... By the time of the presidential election in May 2012, economic growth was stagnating, the economic environment was further deteriorating, and the social conditions of the citizenry were getting worse.

I am not stating here what could or should have been done differently -- I am not in a position to influence events or decide anything. Neither am I defending Sarkozy & Co. I am just stating what the situation was at the time, and I have to presume that the opposition party had to be cognizant of that situation. Whether they were or not, historians will tell. Apparently, they were not, and people began to think that the new government was unprepared to take charge due to their lack of experience.

One has to be prudent not to throw them under the bus -- the situation is dire and complex. But their inexperience in government affairs is both obvious and factual. Neither Hollande nor Ayrault, as well as the vast majority of the ministers, ever participated in a former government (only 4 or 5 have). This is the first time in the Fifth Republic that a president has had no prior experience in government. All former ones -- de Gaulle, Pompidou, Giscard d'Estaing, Mitterrand, Chirac, and Sarkozy -- had worked in government, with often a high level of responsibilities. They knew the ship of state inside and out. François Hollande became president without any familiarity with, or knowledge of, the inner-workings of a government. Mayors, parliamentarians, party apparatchiks were the characteristics or profiles of Hollande and Ayrault. Unfortunately but naturally, they picked the members of their administration according to their own profiles -- people with absolutely no experience (again with the exception of 4 or 5 ministers). Though they are in general highly educated, almost all of them have never worked in the private sector or interacted with business leaders. They came up through the ranks of the party -- ambitious paper pushers, ideologues, in constant opposition to whatever policies chosen by the other party and with only one goal: Get back in power.

They reached their goal all right and soon discovered that the crisis or crises were not a figment of the imagination. Since then, they are going back and forth to try to keep the ship of state afloat. In five months they have managed to malign entrepreneurs and business leaders to such an extent that a slow exodus of creative minds is taking place. Though the government officially denies the occurrence, it happens that recently 400 to 500 luxury residences have come on the market just in and around Paris and lawyers specializing in relocations are being swamped by demands for advice on how and where to leave. People are beginning to realize that contrary to the government's claim that only one in ten taxpayers will be affected by the new fiscal policies, it turns out that the opposite is true. Nine in ten people will. Prices of food and utilities are shooting up. Social plans -- a euphemism for layoffs and plant closures -- are accelerating. (Amusingly, Sarkozy used to talk about the need for rigor, but the nominally-Socialists are now implementing austerity.) Decisions made one day are overturned a week or so later, and Hollande, still in search of his own presidential style and vision, can only mutter "eh...oh...hmm..." before flying to wherever he goes and relentlessly opposing the German government in regard to the durability of the eurozone.

If this is not cacophony, then what is it?


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published October 22, 2012