France and the EU: one year into Hollande’s Presidency

One year into François Hollande’s Presidency, with the French media focusing on promises kept and broken at home, it’s time for a first appraisal of his track-record on Europe and France’s position in the EU.

Austerity v. growth

On the economic front, France seems to have lost its voice in Europe: without your house in order, “it is very difficult to influence others”. Indeed, the IMF predicts that France’s GDP will fall by 0.1% in 2013, as household consumption is falling, investment is on hold and unemployment is skyrocketing. As a result, France has not been successful in shifting European economic policies, although it has triggered intense and ongoing discussions in the European Council.

Even before his election, Hollande tried to challenge the austerity measures pushed for by the infamous “Merkozy” duo. Centre-left Europhiles welcomed this move as a possible shift of direction for EU economic policy. And indeed, as early as June 2012, a “Compact for growth and jobs” was adopted by the European Council, including a – less than whopping – 120 million euro budget. But those who hoped that this was only the beginning of a substantial policy shift are still waiting for concrete measures. In its 2013 European Semester report, the Commission continues to underline the importance for France to put “its debt firmly onto a downward path” – hardly a resounding victory for the Hollande camp.

Also, the chemistry between Hollande and Merkel according to EU insiders is somewhere between pragmatic and toxic: nowhere near the Kohl-Mitterand axis that jointly led the EU despite their party lines. The latest polemic around an internal Socialist party paper against European austerity measures guided by the “selfish intransigence” of Angela Merkel just proves this point. Rather than primitive “germanophobia”, this unlucky episode reduces EU policies to an ideological Franco-German confrontation, which is clearly too limited a vision of and for Europe. It must be interpreted as an internal defeat for François Hollande, who seems to have transformed from Mr Normal to Mr Weak.

Foreign policy

French influence on European politics has historically been strongest on foreign policy. Since the 1998 St-Malo agreement between Britain and France and the slow launch of the European Security and Defense Policy (now CSDP, since Lisbon), France has played a central role. Sarkozy’s strong push for a UN military intervention in Libya in 2011 is a case in point. Hollande confirmed this trend with the French “Serval” intervention in Mali from January 2013. The fact that the intervention was not conducted under the umbrella of the EU’s nascent Common Foreign Policy caused some headache in Brussels. Hollande strongly defended the military intervention in front of the European Parliament –itself a unique exercise – in which he thanked the EP for its understanding and called Europe to act for peace in the Sahel. He managed to garner the support of 21 other EU countries; a European Union Training Mission was launched to Mali in February with a 15-month mandate -this is no mean feat in view of the EU’s arcane foreign policy structure. In short, France under Hollande has remained at the core of the European foreign policy and demonstrated it is still a driving force.

Lack of political courage and European vision

There are a few EU issues on which Président Hollande has just kept his predecessor’s position, despite his campaign platform, starting with the monthly flying circus of the European Parliament shuttling to Strasbourg. MEPs, assistants, Commission’s officials, journalists and lobbyists all commute to attend the plenary sessions in Strasbourg, to a cost of around €180m a year. Many MEPs, not least the British, have been very vocal on the subject, campaigning for a #SingleSeat. However, and despite the difficult budgetary circumstances, the French government has committed €47m over 3 years to the city of Strasbourg for welcoming the monthly sessions of the EP. This will make Strasbourg’s restaurant and hotel lobby happy, but clearly shows a lack of political courage, as the European interest would dictate otherwise.

Similarly, François Hollande has kept a very conservative position regarding the Common Agricultural Policy reform for 2014-2020. Although he defended a strong budget for a modern Europe in his speech to the EP in February, the French President insists that Agriculture should remain a core component of EU policies. This statement, although unsurprising, is still disappointing, illustrating an unwillingness to tackle vested interests. Indeed, one can question whether agriculture should remain the first area of spending at EU level.

Very much like his predecessors, François Hollande continues to play “chaises musicales” at the Ministry of European Affairs. Following the scandal of fiscal fraud, Bernard Cazneuve replaced Cahuzac as budget minister, and Hollande named Thierry Repentin as deputy-minister in charge of European Affairs. He is the 11th minister to hold this function in 11 years, and has limited familiarity of Europe, unless you count his experience as Commission stagiaire and Parliamentary assistant in the 1980s. This also illustrates how France underestimates the social dimension in Council meetings, where personal contacts often count for more than national influence. Such a high turn-over simply weakens France’s positions in the EU.

To paraphrase the Czech intellectual and philosopher Milan Kundera, the first year of Hollande’s presidency questions whether Paris is still the capital of something more than France… Indeed, domestic weakness is undermining France’s position on the economic front, and a lack of political courage has limited French influence to CFSP. Nevertheless, one should commend Hollande for moving Jean Pisany-Ferry from head of Bruegel (a Brussels-based economic think-tank) to the cabinet of Jean-Marc Ayrault, the French PM. A good catch for the government, as Pisany-Ferry perfectly understands the European political field and has extensive experience and contacts. With a little hope and some encouragement, this should augur in a more creative and proactive French presence at the heart of Europe.