Liberté. Égalité. Fraternité? A review of this 1st Hollande cabinet
So here we are… a couple of weeks after the election of Francois Hollande as the 2nd Socialist Party member to ever get to the Presidential position in the current constitution started in 1958.
His campaign slogan “Le Changement, c’est maintenant” (Change, is coming now) echoed both Obama’s “Change” and Australian Labor PM Gough Whitlam’s iconic “It’s time” in 1972. And like both his predecessors he comes into office with the hope that he will limit the almost inevitable disappointment built-in such a promise.
Before his first policies get drafted, a good way of measuring the impetus for change is to look at the newly appointed cabinet.
Anyone to translate the joke? “Le Changebent, c’est baintenant”: a very nasal and congested “jchanbge, is cobing mow” (yes, high-jacked by a medicine company for head cold tablets…)
Things started with a take-over from Sarkozy that turned into a take-a-shower thanks to heavy cold rain over the Palais de l’Elysée. A too tempting opportunity for commentators not to indulge in jokes about how wet he should get before asking for an umbrella while meeting the crowd, and clearly picking on the whole “Mr Normal” theme.
Soon after the decorum of the proceedings, came the appointment of the first government of the ‘quiquennat’ - the five-year term of the Presidency. Beyond the campaign rhetoric, the distribution of the various portfolios really is the first strong tangible signal sent to France and Europe on his balanced political agenda. So as soon as his long-time faithful (some say subordinated) friend Jean-Marc Ayrault was sworn in as Prime Minister, the guessing-nominating game began for the rest of the cabinet. And what a more republican way than to use the “Liberté. Égalité. Fraternité” motto as a litmus test on this new team.
Jean-Marc Ayrault, new Prime Minister, long time Socialist Caucus Leader in parliament. He taught German in his pre-political life: a bonus given the need to work with Germany to fix the EU.
Liberty it is. The biggest surprise on the list has to be Christiane Taubira as Justice Minister. She is one of only four cabinet members who do not come from the Socialist Party, which is heavily represented at the expense of other Left parties given the odds are on a future Socialist majority to come out of the legislative elections in late May. Expectations are that the presidential party will benefit from the positive momentum of Hollande’s election, putting other Left group in front of the option to collaborate, or find a space between the Right opposition and the president they helped get elected.
She got to politics in a separatist party in her native French Guyana, which makes her getting to a ministry all the more unusual in a very centralized State like France. Since the French absolutism of Louis XIII and Louis XIV in the seventeenth century and the policies of Cardinal Richelieu and later Colbert, France has been ruled under a strong central administration in a fight against separatism or even what the French call “particularism” (best translated by “Regionalism”) through measures such as the prohibition of regional languages, in favour of French as the sole and only official language of the Republic. Recent governments have been trying to revert this pattern but it will take more than promoting the teaching of Regional languages in schools to change habits embedded during centuries of “Parisian centralisation”.
The message? Marine le Pen can get lost
In 2001 Christiane Taubira inspired a Bill named after her, which acknowledges the Atlantic Slave Trade and Slavery as crimes against Humanity. Naming a Caribbean women to the Ministry of Justice (on the left in the picture above) is a strong and positive signal to minorities, which contrast with the “Ministry of National Identity and Immigration” created by Sarkozy in 2007 and which no longer exist (as if the later was the main threat to the former, and not the neoliberal US-led cultural globalisation). The political statement Hollande wants to make is loud and clear, there is no possible compromise with colonial nostalgia, xenophobia or racism promoted by politicians like Far-Right leader Marine Le Pen (on the right in the picture above). (see a previous post for more insights on the rise of Lepenism and its influence on French politics)
Gender Equality is a second feature of this cabinet: 50:50 men and women, fairly well balanced, with the notable exception of the economy positions which all went to men… Depending whether you chose to see the glass half full or half empty, you can remember that France is one of the lowest ranked Democracy regarding female representation in politics. Lower than Albania as the NYT reported. So bearing this in mind might make this cabinet sound like a substantial improvement.
The government is also made of women and men who stood diversely in the dramatic referendum on the European Constitution in 2005. To the despair of its supporters who claimed “there is no plan B” (for the EU) echoing the neoliberal Thatcherian “there is no alternative“, the ‘No’ won 54.68% and the proposed EU Constitution was rejected. Voters simply did not want the economic policies of the European Union promoting Free Market and its dream of Fair Competition. The Netherlands soon followed. Ireland was expected to say ‘No’ too but the ballot did not occur. This milestone can be seen as the end of the European political integration started decades before: it had the effect of opening new fault lines among political parties and unions, which have remained deeply divided since, and the Socialist Party in particular.
The effluxion of time: President Francois Mitterrand and his (young) PM Laurent Fabius in the 1980s: architects of the European integration. Fast forward 2005, (an older) Fabius campaigned for the ‘No’ to the proposed EU constitution. 2012, he is now Foreign Minister having to deal with the EU dossier. The effluxion of time indeed…
In order for the NO-voters to adhere his future policies, Hollande (who voted Yes) had to appoint several of their representatives. Laurent Fabius, former Prime Minister of François Mitterrand in the mid 80s, is the new Ministry of Foreign Affairs (both above). Some see it as a mixed warning signal to the European Union and Germany who ratified the constitution. More, his Deputy Minister to the European Affairs Bernard Cazeneuve voted ‘No’ too, and again against the subsequent Treaty of Lisbonne which organises the EU today. Some say that Fabius endorsed the No vote at the time (2005) as a tactical move to regain relevance and get a chance to the future presidential elections but failed. However, whatever plans he had did not come to fruition as he was not even candidate to the socialist primaries as reported here.
Arnaud Montegourg, sympathetic to Melenchon’s Left Front ant-globalisation ideas will need uber-conviction to push his envelop…
Another No-voter Arnaud Montebourg is now the new “Minister for Productive Recovery”, a not-so-normal title in sharp contrast with the normalcy advocated by his President (see previous post on this). This is actually a shrew political appointment shifting some pressure off Hollande to Montebourg. Given the later has been a vocal champion for “de-globalisation”, he will now have to prove that he can push his alter-globalist ideas whilst dealing with the Finance and shrinking European industries and above all, prove that Far Right policies are not the only chance left to the French to mitigate the effect of the neoliberal globalisation: a massive ministerial challenge indeed…
The most powerful position of Treasurer (Economy and Finance Minister) went to Pierre Moscovici (pictured below), a centrist or rightist according to Socialist standards. His deputy Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac is on the same line being the former President of the Finance Committee of the National Assembly (not exactly a revolutionary club). So clearly, after a campaign focussed on ‘immigration’ on the Right and ‘change’ on the Left, President Hollande appointed orthodox rationalist economists to please the markets, according to the textbook all politicians seem to read these days, probably with the hope of having his hands free to deal with social issues.
Meet the new Minister for Economic Fraternity (yes, the Treasurer): Pierre Moscovici
The trouble is that the No-voters of 2005 or the Left Front supporters of 2012 (11% collected by Melenchon in Round One, who voted for Hollande ultimately) clearly expect more from the new President. And it is on the tangible economic front that they think their ideas must find their way into policies; otherwise their support might shrink. Yet, in the midst of a rough battle for Sovereign debt, which saw France lose its AAA rating a few month ago , most rationalists would say it is a wise choice. But for how long?
The life expectancy of this first government might not exceed two weeks if the results of parliamentary elections are not as good as expected (it needs an absolute majority) for the Socialist Party to truly deliver change and go beyond those welcome but still symbolic first steps.