Art of the impossible


They say that politics is the art of the possible, but in view of the way that François Hollande is twisting and turning, it seems clear we have to turn that one inside out. On being elected, the French president promised to restore the dignity of a left-wing that had been bruised by the years of Sarkozy. Accordingly, on coming to power he hit out at the super-rich, increased social spending, boosted employment policies, appointed as industry minister a man opposed to globalization, legalized homosexual marriage and stepped up the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. While the French left savored this ideological feast, European social-democracy rubbed its hands at what seemed the beginning of an electoral comeback, after a long crossing of the desert. True, the rich, the corporations, the Catholic right and The Economist held their heads in dismay at such radicalism. As an anecdote, Gérard Depardieu, the personification of the indomitable France of Cyrano de Bergerac and Asterix, sought exile in Russia.

Fade out. Only months afterward, all this seems to have been a mirage. The government boasts of its hard line on immigrants; its interior minister, the man behind the infamous deportation of Leonarda Dibrani - the student who was taken off a school bus to be deported to Kosovo - is the most popular man in France. Meanwhile the president, once attacked for weakness of character, has become the Americans' best military ally: he volunteered to carry out air strikes on Al-Assad in Syria; questioned the nuclear agreement with Iran; and kicked the Islamists all around the Sahel, from Mali to the Central African Republic. But it is at home where the change is most visible: as well as buttering up the Catholics with a lightning visit to the Vatican, he does a U-turn in economic policy.

There, Angela Merkel, for all her training in physics, felt no compunction in humiliating her Liberal partners in government and adopting the Green Party's bottom-line policy, decreeing the end of Germany's nuclear energy program. Nor has she wavered now in establishing a minimum wage, raising the lowest categories of pensions and increasing social subsidies to accommodate her new coalition partners. In the land where the dominant religion comprises competitiveness, exports and cost control - or at least for the business class - it is clear that the Protestant clergyman's daughter has sinned by yielding ground to the social-democrats.He now opts for a supply-oriented policy, pampers the businessmen, reduces public spending and social security contributions, and wants to talk about labor-market flexibility - to which end he consults Peter Hartz, Volkswagen's former human resources chief and architect of the minijobs plan in Germany (convicted, indeed, of paying bribes to the unions). The left stands agape in amazement, while Paul Krugman is working himself into a rage. Are we talking about the same president? We don't know exactly what is going on in Hollande's head, but it seems likely that, if he feels uncomfortable, he will find some consolation in looking toward Berlin.

Visionary strategies? Pragmatic strategies, guided by responsibility? Opportunistic strikes, driven by compulsion? Everyone can draw their own conclusions. What is important to know is whether or not the convergence between Hollande and Merkel will be good for Europe. And it seems that this is going to be the case.

This article was published in El Pais English Edition on 4 February 2014


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