In round one of the French presidentials the argument was about the new, dirty style of global capitalism. Could you talk to it or propitiate it or were governments now defenceless creatures in the wild, whose only option was to stay on the run? Once the fringe candidates who wanted France to turn and face it were eliminated, the debate should have moved on to France’s debt. Instead, Sarkozy and Hollande fought about the moral tone of Sarkozy’s presidency (money, friends, influence), ‘Republican values’, nuclear energy, immigration, identity and the ritual preparation of meat.
With Hollande’s investiture next week, we’ll be back to the debt. We’re there already. His insistence on growth was an electoral gamble. Sarkozy never managed to call him and it’s now a serious policy position. If the policy works, it will be taught to future generations of French schoolchildren as a triumph, like Marie Curie’s work on radioactivity.
The text books will explain that Hollande rethought the European fiscal compact and convinced Angela Merkel, whereupon the EU heads of state strode into the European Central Bank to propose growth in exchange for reducing their public debt and keeping their deficit below 3 per cent of GDP. A blinding ray of light struck the executive boardroom in Kaiserstrasse. From ‘our ancestors, the Gauls’ to ‘the Hollande Revision’: French electronic history textbooks in 2050 will manage that.
To a layman with a calculator, Hollande’s numbers on debt and deficit reduction don’t add up. Neither did Sarkozy’s. But Merkel, who condescended to Sarkozy, is already condescending to Hollande. His visit to Berlin is in the schedule, though she’s already warned that the pact can’t be renegotiated and she’ll want to suggest that he hasn’t got a real mandate until French parliamentary elections in June. In Berlin there is conciliatory gossip about a separate deal on growth with France that leaves the European pact intact.
If the Hollande Revision fails, France will be in for the long attrition of austerity. Spain will begin to look like a portent rather than a neighbour in trouble. The charismatic candidates who preached the same anathema from different pulpits in round one will muster their forces and bring the fight to the government.
The best predictor may be Mitterrand’s victory in 1981. High hopes broke apart on the reef of an economic downturn. Far from borrowing against the costs of equality, Mitterrand was soon borrowing against a global crisis. He raised the minimum wage, pensions and family benefits. He briefly doubled the growth figures. He shot the balance of payments; he devalued the franc; the deficit deepened. Two years down the road, the coffers were empty and the watchword was ‘la rigueur’: the next stop was ‘austerity’. How will a socialist president who can’t reposition his currency or opt for growth without the consent of his neighbours do any better?