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Sunday 2 June 2013


Unlucky general Hollande is bad news for France

David Cameron is becoming detached from his party's grassroots, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Francois Hollande
Francois Hollande

Apologies to those of you who have a sentimental regard for our French cousins, but I'm now going to be a little disobliging about them. They're in trouble, and it's their own fault.

As, frankly, it usually is.

It was my mother who imbued in me distrust of a nation that has had a better press in Ireland than it deserves. A gamekeeper's daughter and scholarship child who had fled a rural Ireland she found stultifying and cruel, she loved France's language and literature, but she had no illusions about its inhabitants. When she thought summer holidays in Co Cork were making me overly romantic, she pressed the stories of Guy de Maupassant into my teenage hands and I emerged with the deep horror of universal peasant values that has informed my view of Irish politics ever since.

Like Edmund Burke, my mother took a dim view of the French Revolution, seeing it as something that was good in theory but was a disaster in practice. For fun, she sang me snatches of adoring folk ballads about Napoleon and his kin promising to come and rescue us from our wicked neighbour, and laughed at the gullibility we persistently showed in the face of the reality of French cynicism, pointing out – with particular reference to 1798 – that all they did when they intervened in our domestic affairs was to make a bad situation worse.

Living in London for most of my adult life, I imbibed some of the complex English attitude to the French, whose arrogance and posturing amuse them, whose country they emigrate to from choice, whose women they fancy, who they think can be relied on only to let their British saviours down and whose politicians they think are mostly corrupt hypocrites.

There's no reason to think President Francois Hollande is corrupt or particularly hypocritical. Unfortunately for France, he's a weak fool. He was elected because Nicolas Sarkozy seemed (a) embarrassingly flashy and (b) unpatriotically insistent on facing economic realities. Hollande made promises about a pain-free socialist new dawn and swung the election by undertaking to reverse Sarko's raising of the retirement age from 60 to 62. Which takes me back to my earlier contention that the French get what they deserve.

The French should have spotted from day one of his presidency that they had made a dumb decision, as the misfortunate Hollande showed almost immediately that he was Napoleon's nightmare – an unlucky general. On the day of his inauguration, he was drenched as he led a triumphant procession down the Champs Elysee. He then took off to have dinner in Berlin and tellAngela Merkel what to do with austerity and had to turn back when his plane was hit by lightning.

Sarko had raised eyebrows by marrying a rich, Italian model/singer with a colourful sexual history. The bland and colourless Hollande created a public scandal by importing into the Elysee Palace a mistress who wages public war on the mother of his children and is alleged by her biographers to have been sleeping ecumenically with left and right while still married to the father of hers.

Since then, every economic forecast has turned to ashes, there has been a steady diet of terrible economic news and every Hollande initiative has been a catastrophe.

Raising taxes led to a flight of the rich; and a perception that the government is anti-enterprise has led to a stampede of the ambitious young to London.

Pushing through gay marriage has caused violent riots in Paris, where Catholicism still holds more sway than the political elite realised. Hollande's insistence that austerity is unnecessary has caused ructions in the eurozone and his mixture of feebleness and aggression has led Chancellor Merkel to conclude that the Franco-German relationship is probably doomed for now.

Has Hollande grasped that – because of him – there's a real possibility that if/when Merkel is re-elected in the autumn, she will unite with David Cameron to seek to reform the EU according to solid Protestant principles?

Last week, the European Commission demanded that – in exchange for a two-year extension to get its deficit below the 3 per cent of GDP as required by EU rules – France should introduce cuts in public spending and labour costs along with pension reform. Hollande's response was to say it was none of the Commission's business. This weekend, as Merkel prepared to meet Hollande to try to kick some sense into him, her political allies were accusing him of "shaking the foundations of the European Union".

But no one could reasonably accuse Hollande of not taking decisive action. He's selling off 10 per cent of the presidential cellar. True, this won't make much of a dent in the €87bn budget deficit. But it means that Angela won't be offered any 1990 Petrus.

That'll teach her.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards