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Hichem Karoui: The Return of the Socialists
May 20, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

In 2007, on his arrival at the Elysee Palace, Nicolas Sarkozy granted himself a salary increase of 170 per cent. To justify that unbelievable gesture, the secretary general of the Elysee, then Claude Gueant, declared to the press that “even revised upwards, the salary of our president is lower than others in Germany, Ireland, the USA and the UK.” Then as he realised the silliness of his justification, whereas the country was plagued by unemployment and millions of people were condemned to live with just an SMIC (i.e. national minimum salary) if they wanted to keep their jobs, he added after an indescribable jabber about retirement pensions of previous presidents, to the surprise of the journalists, another jewel of the intelligence: “This is not an increase in the revenues of the president,” he said, “it is a decrease of about 15 to 20 per cent!”

I recognise I have never been able to understand by which magic trick we could transform an increase of 170 per cent into a decrease of 15 to 20 per cent. Only Claude Gueant knows the secret. Yet, I don’t think that many people in France were happy with that “explanation,” probably included inside the UMP itself (the party of Sarkozy). It was definitely the wrong way to start an era. Sarkozy sounded like a man saying to all the people who, for a reason or another, voted for him (and to the others as well): “Now that I am in the Elysee, you can go and...”

During five years, Sarkozy forged a style of governing and dealing with people that has been often decried as misbehaviour made of shortcomings, mistakes, and coarse manners, not to mention his bad habit of nosing anywhere and playing the “omnipresent president.” His tendency to overshadow his ministers (including the prime minister), and his predisposition to think that the media were at his service, indisposed his friends and sympathisers even more than his rivals and opponents. It is all the same curious that during his mandate, Madame Segolene Royal (former unlucky socialist candidate for presidency) complained twice at least about “X” breaking into her house during her absence. As nothing was missing, but the offence was made evident, speculations went wide in the media about  the “shadow people” who are professionally able to perform such a task and leave the message behind them, fearlessly.

However, Madame Royal was far from being a defenceless victim of the Sarkozy era. The real victims – the precarious, the youth, the workers of the relocated businesses, the people of colour and the Muslims of the suburbs, the immigrants… continued to fall endlessly by dozens and hundreds all along that era. And neither Sarkozy, nor his ideological and political machine (the UMP) could help them, so that at the end of the quinquennium, there were so many “economic freaked out” who  felt rejected by the system, that it would be crazy to expect them to vote for Sarkozy even if once they did, either because they were not reassured by Royal’s message, or because simply they could not bring themselves to believe in the Left.

This is to say that the work the Ayrault government has to do is huge.

The French have got the message released on Day One of the socialist government. It was highly symbolic and important to show the desire to break up with the former style of governance by ordering a 30 per cent pay cut for the president and ministers on the first cabinet session. That was anyway a pledge included in the programme of Francois Hollande. Many people are now expecting the fulfilment of other promises. Those people are neither left nor right-wing. They are just French citizens going through hardship because of an economic crisis for which they are not responsible.

Some of them do not believe in political promises anymore.  Some of them did not vote for Hollande, because they were undecided, or could not make a clear distinction between the right and the left. Some of them went to increase the ranks of Marine Le Pen, although they are unemployed or in a precarious situation. If you ask them why, they’d repeat the same simplistic arguments of the Front national: the immigrants took our jobs and would lead France to bankruptcy!

Hollande has led his campaign under the slogan “the change is now.” So, it is now the time to show them the difference between a conservative and a socialist government. The great rendezvous concerns the upcoming legislative elections, in June 2012. In order to break up entirely with the politics pursued by the rightist government, the socialists and their allies from the left need their hands to be free. Today, France needs a cohabitation government as much as an exhausted boxer arriving  at the 15th round needs to receive a hook on the chin. The picture is slightly exaggerated, but it makes sense when you see what is happening in Europe. The cohabitation governments that France tested in the past did not really achieve any good work. They spent time throwing banana peels under the feet of the rival camp, to the pleasure of the press indeed, rather than serving their compatriots.

A report recently issued by “the political risks services” pointed to the “cherished French tradition of walking off the job at the slightest provocation,” which “remains strongly embedded in the political culture;” and, as was made clear in the final years of the previous PS government, “workers are no less likely to organise protests,” whoever controls the Parliament. The report observed that “the conditions that facilitated the centre-left’s return to power (...) would include a marked increase in social unrest, and a PS-led regime would face pressure for rapid action to address the causes of discontent.”

Furthermore, “the failure of a divided regime to address the impediments to improving the country’s competitiveness would have a dampening impact on economic performance. Real GDP growth would average just 1.3 per cent per year through 2015. The slower rate of growth would create a check on inflation, which would average 1.5 per cent per year over the forecast period.”

It is obvious therefore that the game is not over. Sarkozy has been defeated; but we don’t know whether the government would stay socialist or turn divided.

In these first days of Hollande’s presidency, the French are going to test the new government; they are going to judge it on any measure taken, any step towards the promises of the socialist programme. In June, we will know whether Hollande is going to be allowed to implement his programme or not.

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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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