“Mon centre cède, ma droite recule, situation excellente, j'attaque”.
The words of another French statesman, Marshall Foch, defying the German advance at the start of WW1 with the rallying cry of: ”My centre’s giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent, I am attacking”. Francois Hollande lacked Foch’s brevity, but in the course of a two and a half hour press conference, his message was the same.
The man has come through a brutal first year, at the end of which few of his compatriots think he’s up to the job, and even he seems to share the view that most of his cabinet are useless. The economy is tanking, the Germans barely talk to him and his pretensions to be the standard bearer of the left in Europe are laughable. ‘Situation excellent’, he seemed to say, and attack he did.
First there was the grand plan to create a new economic government of Europe within just two years, led by an (appointed) President in Brussels who would hold a meeting every month to set economic policy for all the Eurozone countries. What’s more, this new government would be able to borrow money on everyone’s behalf, so that it would effectively be guaranteed by the German taxpayer. He didn’t say what Angela Merkel thinks of all this. It’s not even clear that he’s asked her.
Then came the claim that he was leading - and winning - the battle against austerity. “France’s recession has been caused by the policies of austerity” he declared, pinning the blame for his Government’s economic failures squarely on Brussels and Berlin. Brussels has just allowed him an extra two years to get the French budget deficit below 3% of GDP, which he claims as a great victory against the forces of austerity. In fact it’s nothing more than ‘real politik’. Was the Commission ever likely to impose huge fines on a big country like France for breaking the rules? It never has before.
What about his public image? Why is he so indecisive? “I’m not indecisive. I take decisions all the time”, he said, as if that somehow settled the matter. A new ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary called ‘Le Pouvoir’ is just hitting French cinemas (do French people really pay to go and see that sort of thing?) which had enjoyed unprecedented behind the scenes access, but it has done Hollande few favours. It certainly betrays his claims to be a commanding presence in the Elysee. The French think their President should be pretty close to a King. Hollande appears more Prime Minister, shuffling around the Palace, often ignored by his staff or over-ruled by his partner Valerie Trieweiller.
But say what you like about Francois Hollande, he can certainly talk. He started his press conference with a 45 minute speech and then took questions for a further hour and 45. Just before I was called to ask a question he was in full Charles de Gaulle mode, insisting that Europe has always done very well without the UK, and would happily do so again if necessary. I reminded him that, for the time being at least, we are still around. “And you are still welcome” he said, smiling. “Although I am not about to roll out the red for carpet for you”. Oh how that jibe by David Cameron about rolling out the red carpet for French business still seems to hurt.
One year on, most in France are longing for their President to up his game. Their leader’s verbosity is not considered an asset. ‘Less talk, more action, s’il vous plait’.