This week marks the third anniversary of the presidency of François Hollande. And what a ride it's been: In between the disastrous love affairs, public breakups, and ménages à trois, Hollande managed to become the most unpopular president in the history of France's Fifth Republic.
How did it come to this?
There are two obvious and widely noted reasons: first, the euro crisis, which has caused economic sluggishness and mass unemployment; and second, a serious charisma deficit. But there's more to it than that. And now that Hollande's three-fifths of the way into his term, it isn't enough to simply talk about charisma and the global economy.
On domestic policy, the best way to describe Hollande would be as a tepid would-be reformer.
The first year of the Hollande administration was positively chaotic. It shouldn't have been: The eurozone crisis had just reached its zenith and the French people were hungry for reform. Plus, in any democratic system, an administration's first year is its most productive. But Hollande blew his big chance, allowing his government to wander about directionless. Ministers bickered in public and Hollande refused to make decisions. France's Socialist Party is bitterly divided between its honest-to-God-socialist Old Left and its more reformist, neoliberal New Left wing. Hollande, seeking to placate political allies, shuffled government jobs between them.
After two years in office, Hollande finally decided to decide something, and he decided he better leave the job of governing to somebody else. He sacked his flailing prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and appointed the young(ish), ambitious, and hard-charging politician Manuel Valls. Valls had built his career as the spokesman of the New Left in a party mostly dominated by the Old; he made his name calling for more pro-market reforms and, as mayor of a poor French suburb, for tougher policing.
The government, then, had decided on a new line. The Valls government, at least in theory, is reformist with a pro-market bent: It has put forward plans to cut corporate taxes and to change France's arcane labor market regulations. Hollande also appointed as finance minister Emmanuel Macron, who looks exactly like the 37-year-old brilliant-technocrat-cum-investment-banker he is. Macron is pushing through a bill that would soften many of France's most cherished occupational licensing rules, one of the major barriers to employment.
As anyone outside France's Socialist Party headquarters knows, France needs a dose of pro-market reform. Is this what Hollande is delivering? In theory, yes. In practice, no.
The problem is that every single attempt by the government to roll out a reform has been beset by so many technocratic fumbles, walkbacks, and dilutions that they don't end up making a difference. Hence the description of Hollande as a tepid would-be reformer. In his first year, the problem was that he couldn't set a course. Now that he has set a course, he doesn't have a boat.
On foreign policy, Hollande's record is more mixed. There is some bad, but there is some really good.
First, the bad: The one time when France needed a bona fide socialist as president was the one time when it didn't get one, even though the president at the time did happen to belong to the Socialist Party. I am referring to the austerity policies, monetary and fiscal, pushed on the rest of Europe by Germany's Angela Merkel. The German Chancellor's policies turned the eurozone's recession into a mini-depression (and an outright depression in many countries of southern Europe), and let a debt crisis become a political crisis, threatening to destroy the eurozone.
This was exactly the time when Europe's other big hitter — and a leader of the left to boot! — should have stood up and spoken out against this agenda. Alas, Hollande did not.
France, which historically is supposed to be the leading country in the European Union, basically looked at the tips of its shoes and whistled as EU policy was being made. We'll never know how it would have played out for Europe's anti-austerity movement to be led not just by ragtag economists and protesters, but by the EU's other most important country. It might have changed the course of the continent, and thereby saved unnecessary pain for tens of millions of people.
But the good in Hollande's foreign policy is also very good.
Surprising pretty much everyone, Hollande has shown himself to be as robust and clever when it comes to foreign policy in the Middle East and Africa as he has proven inept in every other policy area. He deserves credit for giving free rein to Laurent Fabius, his foreign minister, and Jean-Yves Le Drian, his defense minister, both extremely well-respected for their expertise. Le Drian, in particular, spends his days doing excellent work while fleeing the limelight and refraining from taking credit. And Fabius, who was previously as immensely intelligent as he was self-regarding, seems to have finally realized that his moment has come and gone, and decided to simply do statesmanlike things instead of running for president, as he had done for the previous 30 years.
The point is: Whether it is taking on Islamists in Mali and Chad, or taking the lead in the international movement to protect Middle East Christians, or taking a tough line on Iran, or doing whatever can be done to patch up the fallout from Nicolas Sarkozy's disastrous Libya intervention, the Hollande administration has found itself on the right side of most foreign policy issues in the world's hottest places, sometimes not shying away from being the lone voice of reason. Given Hollande's lack of preparedness and vision everywhere else, this is particularly striking.
When one writes about a president this massively unpopular and with such a shoddy record, one is tempted to write the counterintuitive take: No, no, he really isn't so bad, you see... But in this case, it's just not possible. François Hollande is a bad president.