On Sunday, an estimated 150,000 people marched in Paris and gathered in the Place de la Bastille to listen to jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the Left Front. Afterwards, the Socialist Party officials were prompt to call the event highly divisive for the left. Accusations of populism and gauchisme (radical and maximalist rhetoric) also rapidly surfaced from Solférino, the Socialist headquarters. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht: would it not be easier for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?
It would seem rather unwise to admonish those who marched against finance and austerity because they were responsible for sending François Hollande to the Elysée Palace in the first place. Although the event was organised by the Left Front, an electoral coalition of nine parties, large segments of the left were represented, including Eva July, the Green Party presidential candidate, trade-unionists, the New Anticapitalist Party and socialist sympathisers. Most had one thing in common: they voted for Hollande in May 2012 to defeat Nicolas Sarkozy.
A year ago, expectations were rather low on the left. Yet people were hoping for a break with Sarkozy’s “hyper-presidency” as well as with his economic reforms, which had largely benefited the rich. As Mélenchon put it in his speech: “Mr Hollande’s trial period is over and the results are not there.”
Indeed, what happened to the man who singled out finance as his main enemy during the presidential campaign? What happened to Mr Normal who promoted an “Exemplary Republic”? Hollande ended up defending until to the bitter end Jérôme Cahuzac, a finance minister responsible for fighting tax evasion who turned out to have used a secret Swiss bank account to avoid paying taxes in France. What happened to the droll and down-to-earth candidate who, without a qualm, is now embracing the Bonapartist style of Charles de Gaulle’s presidency? What happened to the moderate Socialist who promised French voters to reform an unfair tax system, protect workers’ rights or stand up to Angela Merkel’s austerity policies and promote growth-oriented reforms in Europe?
It would be wrong to argue that Hollande’s abysmal unpopularity has to do with his rather unpresidential style, his alleged weakness and indecision, or France’s record unemployment. Those factors may play a part, but only a marginal one. In truth, by not honouring his electoral promises and by not departing from Sarkozy’s pro-financial markets agenda, Hollande has let his electorate down. By the same token, he has let himself down.
To argue that Hollande pandered to the left during his campaign and that he now has to confess that he follows a progressive social democratic strategy is also wide of the mark. If only this were true. If Hollande has an economic strategy, it is one in line with his predecessor. Mélenchon accused Hollande of contributing to Europe’s economic crisis by focusing on “the interests of shareholders, of big business and of European austerity policies, to the detriment of the workers”. This cannot be easily dismissed as leftwing nonsense, as it is now received wisdom among most of the people who elected Hollande a year ago. Just look at a few of the banners carried on Sunday: “We don’t want the world of finance in power”; “Sarko-Hollande: presidents change, but the system remains the same”; “The 5th Republic is no democracy: it generates a cast of corrupt people who avoid paying taxes while we struggle to save money”; “We can’t take those austerity policies any more”.
The government has resorted to discrediting the Left Front by branding it as populist. The accusation won’t wash. French voters have had enough with those tired and authoritarian institutions of the 5th Republic, the corruption at the heart of government (Cahuzac and more to come) and the cynical and one-dimensional management of the country by the dominant Socialist and UMP parties. Politicians who claim to have the people’s best interests at heart while refusing to hear what they say are the real populists: so far, this is what Hollande has done. Should he persist, things can only get worse for him.
Philippe Marlière is professor of French politics at University College London (UK). He tweets @PhMarliere