He’s sinking in the polls, in case anyone didn’t know: a 21% approval rating in the last IPSOS baromètre, 20% in IFOP’s, and just 15% in Le HuffPost’s latest YouGov poll. 15% may be too low, implying that President Hollande is losing support in the hardcore Socialist base, though one does have difficulty these days finding even people on the moderate left who will put in a good word for him or cut him some slack. The Leonarda affair and suspension of the ecotax were the proverbial gouttes d’eau, causing even those—myself included—who were cutting Hollande lots of slack to throw up their arms in despair. Jean-Marie Colombani, writing in Slate.fr, argues, however, that all is not lost, that there are still reasons to believe that Hollande could succeed. Peut-être. But Eric Dupin, also in Slate.fr, observes that unpopularity is an incurable political disease, meaning that Hollande is politically done for. His goose is cooked. Rien à faire.
I would like to agree with Colombani but unfortunately think Dupin is more on the mark. If any president or prime minister in an advanced democracy has sunk to the low 20s in the polls and then proceeded to win reelection a few years hence—which, in a French (or American) presidential election, means the incumbent reaching a minimum 48% approval rating—, I am not aware of it. President Mitterrand dropped to the mid 30s (in the TNS-Sofres monthly baromètre) halfway through his first (seven-year) term but started to climb with the first cohabitation, reaching 60% by the 1988 presidential election. President Chirac, for his part, hit the low 30s a year-and-a-half after winning office in 1995 but still had 5½ years to go on his term—and in view of his mediocre mid-low 40s approval rating in early 2002, would have likely lost the election that year had it not been for the accident of the 21 avril. As for President Sarkozy, I had a blog post exactly a year before the first round of the last election in which I categorically asserted that if his poll numbers—then in the low 20s to low 30s range—did not rise significantly by the end of the year, he was toast in ’12. And he was indeed toast.
Barring some unlikely external mega-event—a French 9/11 or something of the sort—the only way Hollande’s poll numbers can possibly rise into the range in which reelection is conceivable is with a blast of economic growth—at least 2.5-3% per annum—beginning in late 2015 at the latest and with concomitant drop in unemployment, such as occurred in the 1997-2000 period. No economist or any other halfway informed observer believes such a thing is in the realm of the possible. So Hollande is likely to remain unpopular for the rest of his term: with negative numbers from the totality of the right and center—not even a portion of which has ever given him the thumbs up—and voters to the left of the PS (Front de Gauche, etc). The left is certain to take a hit in next March’s municipal elections, though this may not be as severe as in 1983 (or 1977 for the right, when voting behavior in municipal elections was more driven by national politics than it is today). On verra. But the left is going to get massacred in the May 25th elections to the European Parliament, with the Socialists likely to finish third or even fourth: behind the UMP, FN, and possibly UDI-MoDem. That will be the logical moment for Hollande to do a remaniement: to shake up his government and appoint a new prime minister. Jean-Marc Ayrault is a good man—a decent politician of the moderate left—but is too much like Hollande. And he projects even less authority. He’s become inaudible. I can’t think of a Fifth Republic PM whose stature was so shrunken, and only into the second year of his term. And his poll numbers are as low as Hollande’s. Hollande is apparently not considering replacing him—the two work very well together—but after the European elections that probably won’t be tenable, particularly if the PS’s score is below that of Michel Rocard’s list in 1994 (and which scuttled Rocard’s presidential ambitions for the following year).
Only two alternatives to Ayrault make political sense, however: Martine Aubry or Manuel Valls. No one else could possibly make a difference in Hollande’s or the PS’s fortunes. If it’s Aubry, it will mean a sharp change in economic policy—a tack to the left and away from deficit reduction—and with her governing almost as a co-president. Or as a PM in a cohabitation, which is what it would be in effect (as one cannot conceive of her agreeing to anything less). Don’t know if Hollande would be willing to do this, or how he would deal with Berlin, Brussels, and the inevitable tensions—if not outright crises—that such a changement de cap would provoke within the European Union. If it’s Valls, the economic course would remain as is but the change would come in other domains (e.g. security, immigration)—and which would intensify the defiance of the significant portion of the left that despises him (as a sort of Sarkozy of the left’s rightest flank). And it too is unlikely that he would go to the Matignon without guarantees of a carte blanche from Hollande to be a veritable chef de gouvernement, i.e. not executing feuilles de route sent down from the Elysée. So much for Hollande’s authority, of which he is presently accused of having so little. So who knows if any of this will come to pass (or if Aubry or Valls will even want the job in view of their future presidential ambitions).
So that will leave the aftermath of the March 2015 regional elections, in which the left will suffer somewhere from a major setback to an outright debacle. At this point, Hollande will have but one choice—and this is what I’m leading up to, that is the whole point of this post, which has been on my mind the past couple of days—, which is to dissolve the National Assembly and go to early legislative elections. By this time the (increasingly unruly) Socialist group in the Assembly may be down to 289 deputies (50%+1) or even below—subsequent to defeats in élections partielles—and with the government dependent on the dozen-odd PRG and divers gauche deputies plus the écolos, the latter of whom may be in quasi-opposition by then. If Hollande dissolves the Assembly and goes to élections anticipées—declaring that the successive election results and near loss of a majority in the National Assembly have left him no other choice—, the Socialists will of course suffer a defeat, but which would happen in 2017 anyway. Better to put them out of their misery earlier rather than later. And thanks to a possible sursaut on the part of left voters, the defeat may perhaps be more on the order of 1986 (respectable) than 1993 (catastrophic). And also thanks to the near certainty of numerous triangulaires (and even quadrangulaires): of three- and even four-way second round contests, with the PS (and allies), UMP, FN, and UDI-MoDem. The FN will be present in force but also the Jean-Louis Borloo-François Bayrou UDI-MoDem “l’Alternative,” which will presumably field a full slate of candidates and not make first-round deals with the UMP. The outcome could well be uncertain—in view of an impressive first round score for the FN, the interest in the UDI-MoDem alliance as an alternative for centrist-leaning PS and UMP voters, and the droitisation of the UMP and internal tumult and programmatic incoherence caused by this—and with the UMP failing to win an outright majority.
If the UMP were to need the UDI-MoDem to govern, this would offer interesting possibilities for Hollande in appointing a prime minister (someone he could work with, e.g. Bayrou or Borloo, or a UMP moderate à la François Baroin or Bruno Le Maire). But if the UMP won an outright majority, then he could appoint Jean-François Copé, after which the bras de fer would begin. Whether the cohabitation were consensual (relatively) or conflictual, Hollande’s stature and poll numbers could only go up. Left voters would reflexively rally behind him as he faced off with the right. And he would be in better shape going into the 2017 election—were he to decide to run—than otherwise. As for the PS—which is politically brain-dead and with no clue as to what it stand for or wants—, its fortunes would no longer be tied to that of President Hollande. It could begin the process of putting itself back together (and maybe seriously taking up Manuel Valls’s 2009 suggestion that it change its name, which will enable a serious future opening to the center). Breaking with the current electoral calendar—as established in 2002 with the quinquennat and coincidence of the legislative elections immediately following the presidential—would restore the relationship of the President of the Republic and the National Assembly to what it was intended to be in the Fifth Republic. And it would mark an end of the insidious hyper-presidentialization of the political system that was the unintended consequence of the quinquennat and electoral calendar. So if François Hollande dissolves the National Assembly in 2015 or early ’16, he will be doing a favor not only for himself and the PS but also for the French political system.
This scenario may, of course, not come to pass but I’m betting it will. Eric Dupin, in his aforementioned article, mentioned the possibility of dissolution but didn’t develop it. Other commentators and analysts have likely advanced the hypothesis but I haven’t seen anything. So unless someone else has already elaborated the scenario, you heard it here first.
As for why Hollande’s presidency has gone off the rails—why he has sunk so low in the public’s estimation—, I’ll come back to that at a later date.
Read Full Post »