French Socialists have more than sex to worry about

With François Hollande’s announcement that he and former “first girlfriend” Valérie Trierweiler have separated, France’s Socialist Party will be dearly hoping that the soap opera that has gripped the nation for the last few weeks is now over.

Hollande has not denied reports that he is romantically involved with actress Julie Gayet, but he has clearly indicated that she will not be taking on an official role. He evidently intends that the media and the public should focus on his policies rather than his private life.

It’s not at all clear, however, that that will help. The trajectory of Hollande’s opinion poll ratings counts against the idea that the publicity for his love triangle has hurt him, at least so far. His approval rating bottomed out before the recent publicity; since then it has, if anything, recovered slightly.

That may change this week, with news of a new high for unemployment in France, now at 11.1%. But even that may ultimately work in the president’s favor as it reinforces his message of the need for a shift towards more pro-growth, pro-business policies – something that much of his party still regards with scepticism.

Either way, it makes the point that policy, and especially economic policy, is Hollande’s problem, not the much more interesting stories that have dominated the news this month.

When Hollande beat Nicolas Sarkozy less than two years ago, his big selling point was the promise to be a “normal” president, in contrast to the mercurial incumbent. The message was that Sarkozy was spending his time on showy distractions rather than the hard work of fixing the French economy.

The fact that Sarkozy split with his wife and took up with a model was not of itself problematic, and it would have been pointless trying to tell French voters that it was. Similarly, the fact that Hollande has proved to be not as boring as people thought would be readily tolerated by the public, as long as they thought he was doing his job properly. Apparently most of them do not.

And this isn’t just a French problem. The swing towards the left that has been evident in Europe for the last two years or so seems to be petering out, or at least running into trouble.

In the middle of 2011, at the height of the financial crisis, the centre-right was in government in 21 of the European Union countries, against just five for the centre-left. (I’ve left Ireland out as unclassifiable.) That tide has been steadily running out, and now, with the recent changes of government in Luxembourg and the Czech Republic, the centre-left is ahead, 14 to 12 – its best position since 2002.

(These calculations are always a bit debatable: my 14 are Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Croatia is new to the EU, while the Netherlands has joined Ireland on the unclassifiable list.)

But the last few results have been unconvincing (the Social Democrats went backwards in the Czech election, for example, but their centre-right opponents did even worse), and in any case election results are a trailing indicator. Centre-left governments like those in France and Italy are not travelling well, while centre-right governments that had looked in big trouble, notably in Britain and Spain, have picked up some ground.

It’s too early to say whether this is a real trend or just a minor blip. But for now, François Hollande is not the only one who probably needs to lift his game.


7 thoughts on “French Socialists have more than sex to worry about

  1. The left/right division of European governments is always very hard to classifiable since in some of these countries the parties do not fit very neatly into the political spectrum. In Luxembourg for example Xavier Bettel, the countries first gay prime minister, sees himself more as on the center right since economically his democratic party takes more neo-liberal positions then the Christian democrats which is why the socialists have traditionally favored them over the DP in government. Luxembourg’s government is similar to the current one in the Netherlands so it is more likely unclassifiable.


  2. Also the parliament in Bulgaria is deadlocked between the right and left and the prime minister is more seen as a non-partisan technocrat. In Ireland the government is more of a grand coalition and if you put them into the unclassifiable category would the governments in Germany, Austria, and Italy not also be in this category? Generally I see the European Council divisions of political parties to be more accurate.


  3. Thanks very much for that ASPS. My method is basically to look at the party the prime minister comes from, even if the other side is in coalition as well: so Germany, Austria and Italy come out as right, left and left. Where the prime minister is liberal or centrist I look at who else is in government, so that makes Luxembourg left and Estonia right. On that test Netherlands also should be left, but I just felt that was counter-intuitive given that it’s a right-wing liberal party in charge, so I left it unclassifiable. (Although I take your point that Netherlands and Luxembourg are similar.) Ditto Ireland, because I don’t see either major party as fitting a left-right paradigm. Bulgaria seems clearly a centre-left government; the prime minister is an independent, but the Socialist Party nominated him and holds most of the ministries.

    While individual cases are certainly debatable, I think the general trend is still clear. It will be interesting to see how it holds up in the next year or two.


  4. I agree that the low countries are hard to classify since the high concentration of merchants gave the world our first examples of classical liberal parties which still affect the politics in those countries. Since then it is amazing to see how much of a watershed term liberalism has become taking turns in numerous directions.


  5. Demonstrates that when basically all parties in politics choose to work within the same failed economic ideology it doesn’t really matter which side is in government. With citizens being locked out of meaningful debate about economic policies, politics ends up being a form of entertainment where a salacious scandal is the only thing that can liven things up.


  6. It doesn’t really make any difference whether or not the government is ‘left’ or ‘right’, the economic game the government is playing is “Keynesian Capitalism”. Different governmental persuasions bring different styles of play to the table but the game remains the same. If the government wins each hand, the countrys’ mortgage is payed. If the government loses, the country goes into debt. The trouble is all the players are cheating and the house keeps skimming and changing the rules…..The entire world is sick of playing “Keynesian Capitalism”, it’s a shit game. Let’s play something else.


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