(Published in The Malay Mail 25 January 2014)
It’s been a tough January in my household, but not as tough as the behind-the-scenes discussions at the Élysée Palace, home to France’s most unpopular leader ever, President François Hollande. Our worries — hubby about to become jobless combined with a house move — have nothing compared to what’s on Mr Hollande’s plate.
The French public are scrambling to understand the consequences of Mr Hollande’s astonishing U-turns in his personal and political life made over the past fortnight. For starters, there were the revelations about his nightly trysts — sneaking off on the back of a motorbike into the arms of the stunning 41-year-old actress, Julie Gayet — disclosed by the French gossip magazine Closer. You’d be forgiven for thinking this clandestine affair is a little out-of-character given the humble pledge Mr. Hollande made when he took office twenty-months ago: “I, president of the Republic, will make sure that my behaviour is exemplary at every moment.” He was trying to distance himself from his headline grabbing predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, who went for gold during his time as president by divorcing, marrying former model Carla Bruni and welcoming a new baby.
While recognizing their president is actually more of a saucy ‘Hollandaise’ than a ‘Flanby’, the wobbly caramel pudding nickname he was previously saddled with, the French public have, at least ostensibly, treated his antics as exactly how he himself described them: one of life’s “difficult moments”. He’s even received a little sympathy here in the land of sexual sophistication and mistresses — approval ratings have recently increased by 2 points to 26 percent http://tempsreel.nouvelobs.com/politique/20140113.OBS2200/exclusif-hollande-progresse-de-2-points-pas-d-impact-de-sa-vie-privee.html. Still shockingly low though.
It’s a different story for his devastated full-time partner, and the country’s de facto First Lady, Valérie Trierweiler, who was left to lick her wounds in an extended hospital visit; no longer fitting the ‘Rottweiler’ tag she’s been unkindly dubbed with for her cold demeanour.
Then for the main course, there’s the small matter of Mr Hollande’s change of political heart. I imagine, while pushing his coq au vin around his plate one dark January evening, his Eureka moment sounding something like: “If I’m going to lift my political fortunes and, I guess, stop the country going completely down the pan, I have to change my politics.” Last Tuesday, he did just that, calling his move from socialist left to more centrist his new “responsibility pact”. In his announcement to the nation Mr Hollande promised a cut of €30 billion in payroll taxes for business and independent workers, and a cut in government spending of €50 billion by 2017. No specifics were given on how he’ll do it, but the proof of the pudding will come when he’s able to answer questions like: where spending cuts will be made; what social services will be axed; whether employees will be expected to put in more hours without extra pay; will they have to work their precious month of August?
This is a big deal: for Mr Hollande as a fully-fledged Social Democrat, for France, and for us too; if only it had come a year or so earlier. Two months after moving to Paris last year to pursue a new life for the next decade, and hubby a new job, the dust from unpacking boxes barely settled, his company announced their decision to quit France after 40 years to head to business and tax-friendly Dubai. We turned down the company’s invitation to join them, having just drawn a line under our expatriate days to settle us and the kids.
Frustrating as it was, I don’t think you can’t blame his company, and others like them, from exiting France. As much as I hate to say that, as I am by nature a left-leaning creature. But France is a country of extremely generous social benefits (with social charges averaging 34% on top of wages, employers really do think twice before adding to their workforce), enormous government spending (at 57%, it’s the highest ratio of government spending to GDP of the 18-nation eurozone), and taxes of 75% on the very wealthy earning more than €1 million (why French actor Gérard Depardieu and others have legged it).
The consequences of our uncertain future have caused us a few sleepless nights, and on a more personal level, temporary writer’s block for the past month. I am pretty sure we will get through this sticky patch intact; but what the future holds for Mr Hollande is less certain. He’s had his creme brûlée that’s for sure.
Excerpt from the Telegraph newspaper (UK) dated 15 January by cartoonist MATT