[Viewpoint] Bon voyage President HollandeMonsieur Francois Hollande, felicitations! You have brought Socialists to power for the first time in 17 years. You have made your mentor and former boss Francois Mitterrand proud. You have brought the red rose - symbol of the Socialist Party - back to the Place de la Bastille for the first time since France’s longest-serving and first president from the left under the Fifth Republic stepped down in 1995.
It was a close call, but nevertheless unsurprising considering the extent of the anti-incumbent sentiment against the outgoing, brash and razor-tongued President Nicolas Sarkozy. Your self-dubbed Monsieur Normal image with down-to-earth behavior, next-door-neighbor candor and gentility contrasts in every way with the lavish “bling bling” Sarkozy. Many could have voted you simply because they dislike Monsieur Sarkozy and his strong persona.
I watched your last TV debate with the president four days before the vote and it went on live for two and half hours. I was happy that I wasn’t French at that moment. Frankly, the discussions were so disappointing that I wouldn’t vote for either one of you. The finger-pointing, name-calling, and endless wrangling were embarrassingly distasteful. There were bitter outbursts and few traces of intuitive vision and wisdom to save the country as well as Europe in these testing times.
France cannot afford leisurely talk as it faces its worst-ever post-war troubles. The country is weak and in danger of catching the debt epidemic sweeping through Europe. You step up to the helm of a ship in crisis. There is no time to pop open the champagne.
One of the country’s biggest problems is that it is in a state of inertia. It has lost vitality in all fields. The economy is just one of them. The country is leached of creative energy as well. We see little of the aesthetic and creative sensitivity, color, and imagination that once symbolized France. The first thing you should do is reinvigorate the spark in the lives of your people. You must reawake their passions.
The public sector should be first to be newly motivated. I rarely saw civil servants and public-sector staff work with enthusiasm and devotion. They work out of habit, get paid, enjoy welfare packages and plan long vacations. The economic structure depends on the public sector in excess. Public-sector expenditures take up 56 percent of the gross domestic product, the largest among the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. The government spends taxes to maintain employment and the social welfare system. Because of the excessive public-sector and welfare spending, the country’s fiscal deficit is now 90 percent of France’s GDP. The way it keeps up expensive lifestyles despite flagging income, it is no wonder that the country is head over the heels in debt. The first rude-awakening was the stripping of its triple A sovereign credit rating.
Sarkozy also touted reform. But he failed to get the people on the bandwagon because he was hardly persuasive with his domineering, rude, and un-leader-like rhetoric and behavior. The right wing is at a disadvantage to initiate reforms that require pain-sharing from laborers and common citizens. Leftists can be more persuasive on that front. France may have chosen the right leader at the right time.
To generate real changes in France as you have promised, you must win next month’s parliamentary election. Without a substantial increase in the 197 leftist seats in the 577-member parliament, you may end up as no more than a figurehead. You may find yourself in limbo. You may have to go beyond your usual affable and honest style and demonstrate more assertiveness and a populist approach to appeal to traditional supporters. Once you triumph in the election, you must change. Getting power is the goal of an election, but once you gain it, national interests must become your goal. Campaign pledges help to secure power, but do not necessarily have to be entirely kept. Your mentor Mitterrand could have told you the same thing. He signaled left, but nevertheless turned right. Germany is resilient to the debt plague in Europe because former Socialist Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder revamped the labor and welfare system. Rightist leader Angela Merkel wields enormous clout in European affairs today owing to his accomplishments.
A leader cannot change a country alone. He must have the cooperation of the people. You must inspire and persuade the people. Good luck on your voyage.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Bae Myong-bok