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Saturday 1 October 2016

Gerard O'Regan: Hollande has his croissants and he wants to eat them

Gerard O'Regan

Published 15/01/2014 | 02:30

France's President Hollande and his companion Valerie Trierweiler outside the Elysee Palace. She was rushed to hospital after news of the affair broke.
France's President Hollande and his companion Valerie Trierweiler outside the Elysee Palace. She was rushed to hospital after news of the affair broke.
Francois Hollande arriving to deliver his speech yesterday. Photo/Christophe Ena.

That paper bag of freshly baked croissants which arrived promptly at 8.03 am -- just as Francois Hollande was about to have breakfast with his amour -- surely holds the key to the latest juicy tale of love and lust in the French political aristocracy.

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The idea that regardless of the time or place, one should dine well, is surely quintessentially French. It's impossible to imagine a senior political figure in any other country, who in such circumstances, would risk sending out a bodyguard on a moped, so that he and his lover could breakfast with fresh bread.

But of course Francois Hollande and Julie Gayet, were most unlikely, shock horror, to start their day with stale croissants held over from the night before.

God only knows what they would think of the antics of the much-extolled Irish 'breakfast-roll man', who supposedly brought the art of dining on the hoof, to a whole new level during our Celtic Tiger years.

And obviously, as befits such culinary judgment, it also seems they both enjoyed their breakfast at a leisurely Gallic pace. The president did not depart her grace and favour pad until 11.18am. All very civilised. And surely a testament to what the French regard as quality of life.

However, the real background to the Hollande press conference yesterday, is the umbilical cord-like attachment to this "qualite de vie'' by much of the French electorate. It is reflected in the much-loved 35-hour week, annual leave of at least a month, lifetime protected employment, and a retirement age of 60.

The broad French middle class -- including the millions working in the public service-- regard these entitlements as irreversible. Hollande's predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy found this to his cost when he tried to even tinker with such perks and privileges.

Whatever about the meandering nature of his private life, the central issue for the Hollande presidency, is trying to persuade the electorate France simply cannot afford to continue paying for such indulgence.

Over the past five years, the recession has doggedly stalked the economy, as is the case with most of its European neighbours.

Yesterday, the president batted away questions about his private activities, bolstered by polls, which show the vast majority of the French electorate care little about his nocturnal doings. What they are really worried about are proposed cutbacks in state spending, which could hit what in many instances is a very comfortable lifestyle.

The reality is that France is at a philosophical and economic crossroads. Can its unique brand of state capitalism continue funding a welfare system involving offering generous tax breaks to working mothers, coupled with a nationwide system of full-day childcare?

There has also been the growth of what has been termed 'Germanophobia', as French living standards come under ever greater threat.

It's significant that in his address, the president called for greater co-operation with the country's powerful neighbour.

There are increasing complaints -- reflective of the views of many people in this country -- that the euro especially favours Germany compared with their other EU partners. The French increasingly resent Berlin's fixation with austerity, and the need to balance budgets, while its own export juggernaut continues to accelerate.

Typical of the low-level sniping that has been going on, is a recent jibe by a member of Hollande's staff, who argued that poverty levels in Germany are higher than in France. French intellectual Emmanuel Todd also controversially argued on a chat show some weeks ago, that the goal of German economic policy was to "exterminate'' its neighbours.

Yesterday's Hollande speech was strangely redolent of Bertie Ahern's "social partnership'' strategy of a few years ago.

The French jobless figure is at a 16-year high, and his proposals for businesses to take on more workers, for cuts in public spending, even the suggestion that more generic drugs should be used to lighten the health bill, is very redolent of what our own political masters have been telling voters here.

While making no secret of his indignation that matters relating to his private life should be aired in public, Hollande promised some clarity in the coming weeks -- before he chooses one of them to accompany him to the United States.

The image of their head of state, dwarfed in what seemed like an oversized helmet riding pillion passenger on a moped will surely have diminished the traditional hauteur of his high office, even for the most tolerant of French voters.

There are undoubtedly those who will argue that the rather dumpy Lothario now occupying the Elysee wants to have his cake and eat it -- given the exotic nature of a romantic life involving the mother of his children, his live-in mistress, and now a young actress.

But whatever about cake, we do know that Francois likes his croissants. They must always be freshly baked for his morning breakfast, to set him up for the day ahead.

Irish Independent

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