Gerald Warner: Once more unto the breach, chers amis, for France’s dreamers

OOPS! It was the political gaffe that suddenly made former US presidential candidate Rick Perry’s inability to recall which government agencies he wanted to abolish look like a minor hiccup.

Last weekend, the Socialist candidate in the French presidential election, François Hollande, addressed a rally of 20,000 born-again sans-culottes and fired up their egalitarian zeal by quoting Shakespeare: “They failed because they did not start with a dream.”

If you feel that line has more the ring of a Barack Obama-style Christmas cracker motto than the style of the immortal Bard, your suspicions would be well founded. It transpired that this quotation is indeed from Shakespeare – more precisely, from Nicholas Shakespeare, the contemporary English novelist. While it is only fair to record that the author is a first cousin many times removed of the great Bard, further embarrassment was caused Monsieur Hollande by the revelation that the line in question was uttered by the central character in a (Nicholas) Shakespeare novel belonging to the notorious Marxist terrorist group Shining Path, in Peru.

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For all his leftist rhetoric, that is not a connection François Hollande would wish French voters to associate with his camp. There is a dynastic flavour to the Socialist presidential campaign: Hollande’s girlfriend for 30 years, with whom he has four children, was Ségolène Royal, who was the Socialist candidate against Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007. A month after her defeat, Hollande and she split up; now he has succeeded as pretender to the Élysée. The economic crisis has given him a better chance of winning the presidency than his predecessors during the past 17 years of non-socialist rule. Hollande’s strongest suit is simply that he is not the now widely loathed Nicolas Sarkozy.

Perceived electability has dramatically modified Hollande’s programme. The mass creation of public-sector jobs to which he was originally committed has been greatly pruned: 150,000 now, rather than 300,000, and just 5,000 new police posts instead of double that number. Another ploy calculated to give the markets apoplexy – half a million proposed new places in kindergartens – has prudently vanished from the radar. To keep the unreconstructed Left happy, Hollande is giving them consolatory bursts of rhetoric, as in his denomination of the financial sector as “the enemy”. Just how that would play when a putative President Hollande went to his first rendezvous with the IMF is unclear.

For the moment, Hollande is well ahead of Sarkozy in the opinion polls, a position he consolidated with a competent performance in a televised debate against Alain Juppé, the foreign minister. To secure fiscal credibility he has committed himself to public expenditure within tax revenues. Since his agenda is to raise taxes on the “rich” and large companies, that is no guarantee of a realistic programme to revive the economy. In that, he is no more blinkered than most politicians in the developed world, notably pseudo-conservatives, who stubbornly resist tax cuts, the one remedy guaranteed to restore growth. Hollande’s grandstanding raillery against wealth creators, along with his uninspiring personality, testifies to his mediocrity: he would fit in very well at a G8 summit.

Meanwhile, what of Sarkozy? The president’s demeanour is, to say the least, peculiar. He has not yet declared his renewed candidacy and is not expected to do so before March – the first-round vote of the presidential contest is scheduled for 22 April. Last week Sarkozy boosted the morale of his UMP supporters with the inspirational observation: “For the first time in my life I am facing the end of my career.” In an even more bizarre remark, he claimed: “I’d rather be a Carmelite monk than carry on in politics if I lose.” Madame Sarkozy’s response to that is not recorded.

Sarkozy has not been inactive, though. With unemployment in France close to 10 per cent, this month he unveiled an ambitious job creation scheme. Yet he has consistently lagged behind Hollande in opinion polls. In recent surveys Hollande has hovered around 30 per cent, Sarkozy around 25 per cent, with Marine Le Pen of the Front National in third place at slightly below 20 per cent. This suggests the elimination of Marine Le Pen before the run-off on 6 May, but she will not repine over that. For the Front National this contest is about positioning for the next election in 2017.

By then there could be a global economic meltdown, with the collapse of the euro and possibly of the EU. In that scenario, all the discredited parties of the post-War consensus who created the disaster would be history. The so-called “centre-right” has discredited itself in France since 1995; now the Socialists may have a chance to remind the public of their incompetence. This could be the last outing for the old Paris/Brussels/Strasbourg kleptocracy.