An embitterment has entered French politics under the presidency of François Hollande, the first Socialist to run France since the last century. Voters chose Hollande in 2012 as a way of administering a slap to the brassy martinet Sarkozy, but Hollande’s popularity has fallen steadily since. The economy is flat. Hollande’s advisers—mostly people of retirement age—keep scolding the public about how they ought to work harder. The Red Bonnets, a movement of protest against the green taxes that are hitting farmers hard, have been on the march in Brittany. Economic inequality has worsened, and the Paris economist Thomas Piketty—whose new book on inequality has made bestseller lists—took to the pages of the daily Libération to describe Hollande as a “serial bumbler.” Hollande is his party’s most prominent champion of French involvement in the 28-nation superstructure of the European Union, at a time when a majority (58 percent) of Frenchmen want less of it. The country’s unemployment rate is over 10 percent, and Hollande’s approval ratings have fallen into the teens. Never in recent decades has a Western European leader been less popular.
It is not usually fruitful to compare foreign leaders with American presidents, but there is a reason Hollande hit it off so well with President Obama on his state visit last month. Both have a mild manner that is an inestimable asset when the leader of the party that likes to shake things up is courting swing voters. Both, though, are ideological adventurers, with a reverence towards what the university utopians in their party dream up, even if they are not dreamers themselves. But Obama has trump cards Hollande lacks: a reserve currency, an empire, a vast army. He also has Republican opponents who have restrained him from nominating too many Van Joneses and Debo Adegbiles. Hollande has had the personal good fortune, and the political bad fortune, to get the allies he has wished for. He has wound up beholden to the Europe-Écologie party (EELV), which is too radical for most French voters’ tastes.
It was partly at the EELV’s suggestion that Hollande went out on a limb last winter and legalized gay marriage. It was a mistake. The law has been more ferociously resisted in France than in any Western country. As with President Obama’s health care reform, the passage of the law has done nothing to settle the argument over it.