WHEN the last French socialist president, François Mitterrand, was preparing for victory, it was my job as a diplomat to accompany him on a trip to London to call on UK Prime Minister Jim Callaghan. En route from the airport to No 10, I arranged for him to drop in to Kew Gardens. A mistake. He was so enthralled I couldn’t get him out, and we turned up a trifle late for the prime minister.
The point of the story is French insularity. Mitterrand was a passionate arboriculturalist, yet he knew nothing of the glories of Kew. In France, insularity can go along with a romantic nationalism, on Left and Right, and with François Hollande’s victory we are seeing more of that today.
“A policy of national conceit” was how my ambassador in Paris, Sir Nicholas Henderson, characterised French attitudes in the 1970s, and in different conditions that same overweening self-regard is there once again. Socialism is about doctrine, and the economic doctrines of the new president combine two ingredients dear to the heart of the French Left for centuries: nationalism and the revolutionary spirit.
Talk of revolution in the case of the inoffensive-looking Mr Hollande may seem laughable, but look at what he has been saying. In today’s world, revolution doesn’t mean Napoleon’s armies pressing their gifts of liberté, égalité and fraternité on their neighbours by invading their countries. It means blaming the Anglo-Saxon economic model for bringing about a global recession, and challenging Germany’s hegemony in Europe on policies to solve it.
From the day of his election, Mr Hollande has shown that he sees himself as more than the new French leader: he is the incarnation of the European will, the champion of the oppressed groaning under capitalist austerity everywhere, who in his coming jousts with Angela Merkel carries the hopes of Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland on his shoulders.
Posturing is not unknown in French presidents – consider how in Libya, Sarkozy posed as liberator of the Middle East – yet, again, it is a surprise to see mild-mannered Mr Hollande striking such an extravagant stance. Either his party thinks that riding the wave of southern European discontent represents good tactics, or he sees it as his country’s destinée nationale to do it.
The very term is a clue to the state of mind of the people we saw celebrating on the streets of Paris. The British manage to get along without a destiny, but not the French, and the French Left especially. Seeing the jubilation of people in Greece, Spain or Italy will have inspired fond historical memories of French influence abroad.
The problem now is that Mr Hollande has to deliver – and not just for France. In a sense we must hope that he does. What could be better for Britain than for Europe to grow and for stormy markets to settle? Then Mr Hollande would be riding high, as the man who, for the first time in 150 years, rolled back the domineering Germans.
The trouble is that no one can see the mechanics of the miracle that would make this happen. More likely is a bruising and prolonged tussle with Berlin, and to an extent with us. In good French fashion he has already attacked la perfide Albion for caring about the City and nothing else. Not so: we care about the solvency of France as well, because it is so closely tied to our own. That’s why we’re worried about infinite debt.
One of the reasons the markets have reacted not too disastrously is because of talk of an eventual compromise, involving an add-on programme of growth to the eurozone fiscal pact. But anything weak and watery is unlikely to satisfy the president’s southern European champions, and he wants their applause. So there again nationalistic aspirations will come into play.
And it isn’t just Europe, it is the world. Rhetorically, at least, his revolution is against the entire financial system, and in France he is not alone. There, protectionism is in the blood. I have argued the toss with French friends of both conservative and Leftish dispositions, and their views can be remarkably similar. The very term délocalisation, by which jobs disappear and communities are uprooted, is so much more emotive than our bland “outsourcing”.
Then there is the French social security system, a national acquired right (droit acquis) to be defended to the last against a callous financial world. Part of France’s destinée means retiring earlier than the rest of us, and if the new president fulfils his promise to reduce the retirement age to 60 the markets will shudder. Going it alone is a French tradition, but how can they afford it? You could see this perceived right to leisure as another aspect of national conceit. It is true that the French have one of the highest productivity rates in the world, though I doubt whether the Chinese will agree to finance 30-year pensions in France by easing off their inconsiderate competition.
The verbal excess of some of Mr Hollande’s statements (“My enemy is the world of finance”, “I will defeat globalisation”) is not quite that of the Revolution’s Danton (“I will eat his brains and use his skull to s--- in”, he once said of an adversary), but it carries an echo of the same tradition. This time, of course, the battles will be fought out in conference halls and summits, but they will be just as bloody.