French President Francois Hollande holds a press conference at the conclusion of the NATO 2012 Summit in Chicago on May 21, 2012.
French President Francois Hollande holds a press conference at the conclusion of the NATO 2012 Summit in Chicago on May 21, 2012. Eric Feferberg/AFP/GettyImages
Eric Pape is a writer in Paris.
With Europe awash in existential economic questions that underscore its political leadership weaknesses, freshly minted French President Francois Hollande stepped onto the international stage in earnest, breakfasting with President Barack Obama at the White House on May 18 and meeting international leaders. His four-day visit to the United States highlighted a question that has been on the minds of many since his inauguration just three days earlier: What does it mean to be a Socialist president — elected in the midst of a flurry of national, regional, and international crises — at the helm of Europe's crucial nation of the moment?
In reality, that question has been posed in more apocalyptic terms from outside France: Isn't putting a Socialist at the helm of the world's fifth-largest economy in these debt-laden times an exercise in utter madness? All ideology aside, French socialists haven't held a parliamentary majority in a decade, nor have they had a president to call their own for 17 years. With the euphoria of victory wearing off and the pomp of inauguration left behind, some far-away analysts have suggested that this will turn into the ultimate Amateur Hour — with young, lefty radicals spending borrowed funds en route to a worker's paradise that will bankrupt France's debt-reliant social model. Could Hollande in this scenario became the leader of Europe's laggards — Greece, Italy, Spain, and the rest of the growing list — whose policies will suck Germany into a continent-wide tornado of debt, overspending, and inflation? Could he finish off the euro and suck the global economy back into a ditch?
These are the sorts of questions I've been asked by international political commentators, television interviewers, and even a Wall Street trader since Hollande's May 6 election.
Before responding to these nightmare scenarios, it is worth noting that Hollande is unlikely to benefit from the substantial honeymoon traditionally accorded to French presidents. While France seems somehow soothed, at least initially, by the departure of Nicolas Sarkozy, there is simply too much uncertainty. For one, there is the ongoing austerity face-off with Angela Merkel. Hours after Hollande's inauguration, he flew through a lightning storm (literally) to Germany where they agreed, in diplomatic, respectful, and sensible terms that spurring economic growth was crucial (Hollande's point) and that budgetary responsibility remains crucial (Merkel's stance). The initial encounter was far less significant than their still-to-be-seen policy evolutions. Clarity is likely to come as the Greek tragedy culminates with new elections in June, as Europe concludes whether or not Spanish banks will need a huge bailout, and as France attempts to figure out where to save tens of billions of additional euros to keep its spending reduction promise to Brussels.
Hollande's arrival in power amid this multitude of challenges looks a lot like Obama's arrival at the White House in January 2009, buoyed by a strong desire for change from the messy Sarkozy years, but with more of a "we'll see if we can" pragmatism.
Profound concerns endure about France's credit rating, 10 percent-plus-and-rising unemployment, a stagnant economy, and public sector demands for a bolstered minimum wage, which just start to give a hint of the challenges facing Hollande. As to his chops as an international leader, at the NATO and G-8 summits his more seasoned counterparts sussed him out about issues ranging from containing a nuclear Iran to the end of the mission in Afghanistan to spurring economic growth in Europe without further bloating budgets. Obama expressed sympathy for that latter challenge, but the devil is, of course, in the details.
And while Hollande insisted that the return of French troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012 was a matter of French sovereignty (not to mention one of his core campaign promises), he tempered that pledge. All French combat troops will be withdrawn, he re-affirmed, but logistical support is slated to remain until late in 2013 to avoid destabilizing the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
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