ANGELA Merkel has just brought down the French government. That, at least, is the way Francois Hollande’s troubles will be seen on the protectionist left wing of his governing Socialist party.
Formally, the political turmoil in Paris is the collapse of a government. In effect, however, it is a reshuffle, with the prime minister, Manuel Valls, resigning only to be asked immediately to form a new cabinet.
The big casualty is almost certain to be Arnaud Montebourg, the powerful economics minister and a figure of no small ambition on the French left.
Hollande’s uncomfortable calculation is whether Montebourg, a robust controversialist, is more dangerous inside or outside his government tent.
The French leader came into office in 2011 as the anti-Merkel. Now she is as strong as ever and he has never looked weaker
Montebourg’s main sin was to question Hollande’s lacklustre attempts to kickstart the flagging economy. But he couched his broadside in anti-German rhetoric, bitterly complaining that Merkel’s domination of European fiscal policy was strangling France and Italy.
It was clear he was demanding that Hollande stand up more forcefully to the German chancellor, comparing the president unfavourably with De Gaulle and Thatcher. Through the sheer force of leadership, they had turned European policymaking around singlehandedly, Montebourg declared.
The Elysee Palace was less than amused, forcing Hollande to make his second major reshuffle in months.
The French leader came into office at the height of the euro crisis in 2011 as the anti-Merkel, campaigning against German fiscal rigour, denouncing austerity as the German-scripted answer to Europe’s travails, and trying to maintain the Franco-German relationship while concocting a Club Med pact against Berlin with Spain and Italy (discreetly supported by Washington and London).
Three years on, Merkel is as strong as ever. Hollande has never looked weaker. An opinion poll at the weekend put him at 17 per cent, the lowest presidential rating ever in the Fifth Republic.
Unemployment remains stubbornly high, the economy is stagnating, failing to muster the government’s projected one per cent growth this year, Hollande needs Brussels to relax its budget deficit targets for France for a third time and his flagship policies amount to a French form of austerity — spending cuts combined with corporate tax breaks. So far, the results are meagre. If and when he fails, there will be plenty more like Montebourg whingeing that Hollande administered the German medicine but the patient failed to respond.
The economics minister is not isolated. An internal Socialist party policy paper a couple of years ago, only a draft, featured a bitter attack on the German chancellor while accusing Berlin of ruining Europe. It was ditched as too incendiary. But the sentiment persists. The same resentments and rancour extend to Italy, Spain, and Greece. While Hollande’s challenge to Merkel faded fast and amounted to not very much, all eyes are now on Italy’s new young centre-left leader, Matteo Renzi.
Can he take on Merkel where Hollande failed? The former mayor of Florence appears to be a more convinced reformer of Italy than Hollande is of France. Whether Renzi can deliver is the big question, given the entrenched interests he would need to destroy.
The EU is gearing up for a new regime — a new European Commission, a new EU council president running the summits, a new foreign policy chief. If Merkel is at the zenith of her powers in European policymaking, it may also be that she is passing her peak, vulnerable to a more concerted challenge.
The turmoil in Paris presages more battles ahead in Brussels and between EU capitals as the existential crisis that was the euro emergency turns more political.
—By arrangement with the Guardian
Published in Dawn, August 27th, 2014