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Mark Kesselman: The big question is whether Mr. Hollande will be a lion or the mouse that roared

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

And in France, François Hollande will soon be inaugurated as the president of France. The big guessing game is on: will Mr. Hollande actually live up to his election promises? His speech when he won the election was all against austerity, and you hear from the financial institutions and the financial press waiting to see whether he actually means it or not.

So now joining us to talk about just who is François Hollande is Mark Kesselman. Mark is a professor emeritus of political science at Columbia University, where he taught for over 40 years. His teaching and research focused on political economy of advanced capitalism and globalization, with a focus on labor unions and social movements in France and the United States. He’s currently the editor of The International Political Science Review. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So Mr. Hollande started with a big speech where he kind of did two things. One, he kind of echoed President Obama’s inauguration speech—we’re all in this together, it’s one France, we need unity, all the kind of rhetoric which sort of speaks to the fact that there actually isn’t some kind of class struggle going on in France. On the other hand, he did speak against austerity and said austerity should not be inevitable, it should not be fatal, and that it’s time to change the course of Europe, and he spoke as—almost like he got elected president of Europe. So what do you make of him?

KESSELMAN: Well, I’d start by saying that what you characterize as his big speech last night, the victory—during the victory celebration at the Bastille, wasn’t such a big speech, in my view, and I think that was intentional. It was a pretty banal speech, saying let’s all come together, let’s be united. You’re right about, you know, that he mentioned austerity, but I think the subtext was a bit different than simply the economic crisis. It was very much let’s put Sarkozy behind us, in terms of his divisive rhetoric, which I think was as big a reason for Hollande’s victory as the economic crisis. That is to say, Sarkozy has been a very inflammatory, divisive, controversial president, and much of Hollande’s campaign was, look at me, I’m Mr. Normal. And he even talks about normalizing the presidency.

So I would say he’s going to put a lot of accents and a lot of emphasis on let’s reason together, to use LBJ’s term. And then austerity, of course, will be the second theme in importance. But, frankly, he can’t do an awful lot about that, as we can discuss further. So I think he’s going to, both for positive and negative reasons, be a president that tries to unite and puts the theme of cohesion ahead of let’s solve the economic crisis.

JAY: Well, then what does the cohesion mean? Because clearly there’s very different interests in France about how to deal with the crisis. So, I mean, you’re not going to have any more than you have in the United States. Even though there’s all these calls for unity and we’re all in the same boat, it’s pretty clear we’re not all in the same boat here or there. And everyone’s waiting to see now. If you read the financial press this morning, you know, they say the financial institutions are waiting to see if he really means this or not before they start attacking the—the sovereign raiders start going after France.

KESSELMAN: Right. Right. Well, it’s a good question, and it remains an open question. And until he takes office next week and—or two weeks, I guess. It’s the 15th. And then we’ll see what he does.

My guess—well, first of all, I think I would recognize the fact that there is—what we might say about Obama, too, when he took office: there were two Obamas in terms of his economic policies, how audacious would he be, and there’s two Hollandes. On the one hand, yes, he made a speech which really caught—made lots of waves when he launched his campaign after being nominated. The famous phrase he said was, in this election there’s one governing party, one governing agency, and it’s not a question of left/right personalities. The real enemy is finance, the world of finance—that’s who I’m running against. So that was a pretty good, inflammatory, and, you know, impressive leftist speech. And he talked about how he was going to do [incompr.] to try to neutralize the power of finance.

But that was, I would say, exceptional. Much of his campaign and much of his career has been much lower key and much more within the mainstream and not to make waves. So I would say that that second Hollande is at least as important as the first one, if that reassures the financial markets.

There’s a second reason why I think the second Hollande, the more low-key Hollande, will be possibly predominant. And that is, France, it’s not quite a case of the mouse that roared vis-à-vis Germany, but let’s face it, France and the French economy are much smaller than the German economy. And if Angela Merkel sticks to her guns, as she certainly has been generally prone to do, there’s not all that much France can do, except, again, be the mouse that roared and, you know, make some noises of discontent. But I don’t think he can have a substantial impact. And I think, again, he’s going to be realistic enough to recognize that.

So I guess my prognosis is there will be more continuity than change in the Hollande economic policy.

JAY: Now, he runs for a party that calls itself socialist, and the media all calls him socialist. But we know the socialists, if you look at the—in Greece and some of the other European countries, they’ve quite gone along with these austerity measures, although they’re being punished, as we saw in the Greek elections just now. But what is socialist about Hollande? Is there any actual socialism left in him and his party?

KESSELMAN: Well, I don’t think there is terribly much that is left of the socialist elements within the Socialist Party. There was another candidate, who was Jean-Luc Mélanchon, to the left of Hollande, who was a socialist, is a socialist, and meant what he said, I think. He was the candidate of the Front de Gauche, which was an alliance of the Communist Party and some smaller ones. He didn’t do terribly well in the first round of the elections, and I think that Hollande, you know, read that election return and said, well, I have to be left enough to capture the Mélanchon electorate, because without it he would have lost the election, but I’ll be—I’ll do as little as I can in that direction. And I think he will do as little as he can.

The French Socialist Party, the high point of its socialist kind of both rhetoric and action was the first two years of François Miterrand’s presidency. But, then again, we have to go back to 1981 to 1983 to find that kind of more, oh, shall we say, firebreathing socialism, when there was a very audacious program, above all the nationalization of much of French industry and banking. But the French Socialist Party kind of turned its back on that and ran from that program, under Miterrand, by the way, too, for the next 12 years of Miterrand’s presidency, and it became socialist, oh, I would say, very much in the social democratic mold of the Northern European social democratic parties—more solidarity, social benefits, universalistic access to social benefits rather than means testing. It certainly isn’t conservative. It goes way beyond what we find in the U.S., even before Reagan began dismantling the American welfare state. But is it socialist in a more traditional sense of socializing the economy? No, definitely not.

JAY: Now, there seems to be some division in the circles of finance about what should be done next in Europe. I mean, certainly from Germany it’s the austerity plan. But from Wall Street, even some of the Canadian financial institutions, and some—it seems in Europe there is an appetite for some stimulus in Europe, that they don’t want to see a decade of recession in Europe. So does Hollande represent to some extent a point of view that exists even within the financial community?

KESSELMAN: Yes. I think there it would be important not to minimize that there’s some debate around these issues and divisions. And not only within finance, but within policy circles among economists there is—in fact, the weight of opinion is there’s a need for more stimulus. And that’s true both, I would say, among American economists, but also the French. So they—you know, Paul Krugman sums that up probably most dramatically and eloquently and persuasively in the United States, but there are French economists who are precisely on that side, and, again, in policymaking circles, too. So in that sense I don’t want go too far in saying Hollande is going to be more of the same.

I think there will be a debate about how far we can go. Now, it won’t be terribly far. It will be in the direction of let’s pump some more liquidity into the system and more stimulus, let’s forget budget balancing, at least for now, or at least not put as much of the emphasis on it as there’s been. So, yes, I think there will be that kind of debate. I don’t think it’ll be of the kind that kind of turns the debate upside down and, again, back to the old socialist rhetoric. We won’t be hearing much about that. But I think, yes, I think there will be a real possibility of a change occurring.

JAY: Now, why do you say that France can’t do much because it’s the mouse that roared? I mean, if France wants to, I mean, if Hollande wants to rally some of these other countries of Europe who may also change direction electorally, why can’t he?

KESSELMAN: Well, first of all, I shouldn’t have said he couldn’t. I said by itself France would be unable to, and if it’s a French-German confrontation, no contest.

You’re right in saying it might be a possibility of an alliance. But for that to happen, it takes more than two to tango. You’re going to need a very energetic, skillful effort with other regimes which will be on the French—on the side of a rather drastic change in orientation. I don’t—I just don’t see that happening. I don’t see it happening. And, you know, the election returns in Greece, of course, showed what’s going on there. Look at England. I mean, you know, the U.K. is very much on the side of the Germans. They’re not in the euro zone, but they are in the EU and they are on the, quote, “wrong” side of history in this sense. They’re on the much more neoliberal side. I don’t see that coalition taking shape yet. And, I guess, without demeaning Monsieur Hollande, he’s a respectable type, but I think it would take a much more forceful, audacious leader than he has been so far to try to bring that kind of coalition into existence.

JAY: So what does this mean, do you think, for the mass movement in France if in fact it’s more or less more of the same, maybe a little bit mitigated from Sarkozy, a little bit more stimulus? But if it’s not really that much of a difference, how are people likely to respond?

KESSELMAN: Well, two points here, in two ways in which there will be more, let’s say—or less confrontational, less provocative sort of actions that brought out mass demonstrations in the recent past. One is on the economic front. Sarkozy proposed and implemented some very important reforms restricting social benefits. I don’t think Hollande’s going to go further in that respect. He’s even said he’ll partially reverse them. So there won’t be the sort of more positively provocative actions which provoked mass movements of the recent past. The retirement reform was one of the biggest, pension reform under Sarkozy, in which he raised the retirement age. Hollande says he’ll partially reverse that. I don’t think he’ll go too far, but then again, he won’t go further yet in the, you know, kind of inflammatory direction.

The other way in which I think he will be something of a peacemaker and which will have the effect of demobilizing is that area that I alluded to at the beginning of our conversation, that is to say, on the—what could be called the sphere of values, of culture, of—specifically highlighted by the issue of immigration and the place of Islam in France. Hollande, I think, will be very much better—I mean, I know he’ll be very much better there. It’s hard not to be, compared to Sarkozy.

But I think—much more than that, I think he will be a real peacemaker, and that too, I think, will help. I think he meant it when he said we’ve got to put those kinds of divisions behind us. I think he may antagonize some on the right, clearly. Now even Le Pen will be delighted when he’s, you know, trying to practice what he preaches in terms of healing national wounds, ’cause she’ll say, look at this, he’s being a collaborationist, he’s lax, he’s giving in to the Islamic wave, the immigrants. But I think that that will not find a very strong echo within France, I hope.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Mark.

KESSELMAN: You’re welcome.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Mark Kesselman is professor emeritus of Political Science at Columbia University, where he taught for over 40 years. His teaching and research centered on the political economy of advanced capitalism and globalization, with a particular focus on labor unions and social movements in France and the United States. He has published scholarly books, textbooks, and articles on these topics, including "European Politics in Transition," "The Politics of Power: A Critical Introduction to American Politics, and "Introduction to Comparative Poltics."