François Hollande marked European politics with strong interventions in the Greek crisis, the Ukraine conflict, and international military operations. But he was unable to drive progress on the EU’s core projects. EURACTIV France reports.
François Hollande announced last Thursday (1 December) that he would not seek a second term as president of France. His record on European affairs contains a number of successes, but not enough to outweigh his domestic failures in the eyes of the French electorate.
“The world, Europe, and France have been through some particularly difficult times during my mandate,” Hollande said during his speech. The outgoing president drew attention to his successes in resisting austerity and the management of the Greek crisis.
“I enabled Greece to stay in the eurozone. It was so riddled with tensions and crises that it would otherwise have pulled the eurozone apart,” he added.
The Greek crisis
Hollande played a decisive role in avoiding a Greek tragedy. Sources close to the president speak of the night of 12 to 13 July 2015 as a turning point for Greece and Europe.
The new Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was attempting to negotiate a third financial aid package worth €80 billion, which the EU planned to provide using the European Stability Mechanism, in return for draconian reforms.
“Tensions rose during the night and the negotiations broke down when Tsipras left to return to the offices of the Greek representation. He was furious, he was preparing to leave Brussels. François Hollande went to find him and convinced him to come back to the negotiating table,” a witness said.
According to Vincent Pertusot, the head of the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI) in Brussels, “France played a very positive role in the resolution of the Greek crisis. We saw a very proactive France, ready to stand up to Berlin to support Greece.”
The French-German axis
Relations between France and Germany suffered during Hollande’s mandate, in part due to this confrontation over Greece. But other reasons came into play too. “It is always a complicated relationship. The fact that these two leaders are from different political families did not help,” Pertusot added.
The two countries clashed with increasing regularity over the five-year period, and France’s inability to fix its anaemic economy did nothing to smooth the relationship. “Five or six years ago, European debates tended to centre on the French-German axis, but now Germany alone is seen as the leader of Europe,” the IFRI leader said.
Hollande did try to “enlarge this axis to include Italy,” according to Socialist MEP Pervenche Berès (S&D group). “But between Italy with its banks and France with its deficit,” any such alliance lacked credibility.
Countering austerity politics
Hollande will also go down as the president that made the European executive bend its own budgetary rules. Under his leadership, France twice received extensions to the Commission’s deadline for bringing its excessive deficit under the acceptable limit of 3%.
The first was in 2012 when Hollande was given the benefit of the doubt after his election. But in 2014, the EU executive had run out of patience.
The French deficit was still outside the 3% limit set by the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP). Former Commission President José Manuel Barroso, then in his last month in the job, wanted to go out with a bang, “a masculine gesture”, by imposing a fine on France.
“And then there was a summit in Italy. It was supposed to be on youth employment, but in fact, there was a lot of discussion on other subjects and very little about employment at all. Hollande put his case to Barroso, then Renzi and Merkel warned of the dangers of turning the French against the European Commission, so the executive changed its mind,” a witness said.
“He managed to stop the Commission punishing France too harshly,” said Pertusot. “But during his 2012 campaign he made lots of promises about rebalancing the Stability and Growth Pact with a pact on economic growth, which did exactly happen,” the expert added.
At the end of the president’s mandate, the European Commission finally broke a taboo by relaxing its deficit rules and encouraging member states to relaunch their economies.
“Right from 2012, Hollande was trapped by the SGP,” said Berès. “He put the question of relaunching investment on the table in June 2012, but was unable to convince the Germans.”
European Union at a standstill
Between the refugee crisis and other emergencies like the Greek crisis, the EU did not have the time to progress on its core projects during the five years of Hollande’s mandate. The Banking Union is still incomplete, which raises the risk of systemic crises.
No single aspect of economic governance that Hollande sought to reform has changed. He spoke out in favour of a eurozone parliament but did little to push the issue at European level. Presented in 2015, the Five Presidents’ Report has been largely ignored by Europe’s political powers.
The German newspapers often credit Angela Merkel with the successes of European foreign policy. But the resolution of the Ukrainian conflict, such as it is, owes a lot to French diplomacy.
It was the French president that enabled the re-establishment of the dialogue between the two sides at the height of the crisis, during the 50th-anniversary commemorations of the Normandy landings in spring 2014.
These four-way negotiations between Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany, which came to be known as the Normandy format, were replicated on several occasions before the Minsk Agreements were reached.
Yet France’s involvement was no foregone conclusion. “Up to the point when the Mistral contracts were cancelled, France had a reputation as a pro-Russian country in its central European policy, which did a lot to harm its credibility. Hollande played a very skilful game with the Normandy format, because France managed to become one of the major players,” said Pertusot.
Europe also owes Hollande a good deal in terms of security. “When France intervened in Mali, all the other European countries were grateful. The risk of a country disintegrating in this region posed a real threat to Europe,” a source from the European Council said.
“France also managed to bring the Sahel region to the attention of its European partners, which was no easy task. Today, all the European capitals are paying attention to this region. It is a change that we can put down to an active French policy,” Pertusot added.
The EU’s other member states then contributed to the French effort with financial or technical support, or by sending reinforcements to relieve French troops in Mali and the Central African Republic. Brexit has cemented France as the European Union’s enforcer.