Renzi-mania and Hollande-phobia: Defining the Anti-Austerity Rhetoric in Brussels

September 4 Main Image

French President François Hollande’s approval rating was reported at a dismal 13% today, breaking his own record for unpopularity. Amidst the freefall of the President’s approval ratings, there is little wonder that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has assumed the responsibility of leading the anti-austerity charge in Brussels.

As the most powerful socialist in Europe, François Hollande has every reason to be the natural leader against German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her austerity rhetoric. Much like his socialist predecessor François Mitterrand, the current French President could spearhead the efforts of European socialists to loosen the strict budgetary rules. Yet, to be a legitimate voice for change it is imperative to propose a policy alternative to German-led austerity. Thus far, Hollande’s only alternative has been loose promises and unfulfilled reforms.

Today’s new popularity numbers reflect the pervasive sense of lassitude generated by the oft-mentioned yet rarely implemented ‘Hollande Alternative.’ At this point in time, the idea in and of itself is laughable. Hollande cannot be expected to lead a major conversation on reforming Europe when he is incapable of reforming France. Therein lies the fundamental problem.

Any Politics 101 class will teach you that legitimacy begets action in a democracy. No one questions the legitimacy of the French President’s mandate, but it is clear that his incessant indecisiveness has managed to discredit both him and his action. In many ways, Hollande’s mandate is quickly escaping his grasp, due to no one’s fault but his own.

There is no example that illustrates this point more clearly than the French President’s disjointed rhetoric on Europe. During his campaign and the early days of his presidency, Hollande emphatically stated his opposition to austerity and his desire to challenge Angela Merkel. It did not take long for the French President to recognize the limits of his bargaining power with Ms. Merkel. What’s more, despite the President’s issues with EU budgetary constraints, he himself failed at his promise to bring French budget deficits below the mandated 3%. Budgets have come and go in France, and each time the promise to lower deficits are pushed to next year.

This dance with Brussels stems entirely from Hollande’s unwillingness to implement the types of structural reforms necessary to lower government spending and restart growth – two key elements of lowering deficits. Hollande’s stagnation has been successful in one area, however: it has managed to both draw the criticism from leaders in Brussels and around Europe as well as the weariness of the French public.

Within this tumultuous atmosphere, both in Paris and in Brussels, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has emerged as the natural leader of the European left. Renzi, a dynamic politician who came to power with sweeping promises of reform, has embodied a younger, more active form of European socialism. Renzi has also made his mark in Brussels. Just this weekend, Renzi managed to push forth the nomination of his Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini to the highly coveted spot of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

It is unlikely that Renzi will be able to make Ms. Merkel budge, but he has managed to do what Hollande failed: pose a genuine alternative to Germany’s austerity model. Renzi is already being criticized for the pace of his reforms, deemed too slow to have a meaningful impact. Despite these criticisms, Renzi has remained steadfast in his commitment to change. Hollande, on the other hand, has remained steadfast in his uncertainty both in his program and his ideas for Europe.

If someone had told me that an Italian Prime Minister would one day dictate European policy to a French President, I would have been highly skeptical. Yet, as Hollande’s legitimacy and support have sunken to unfathomable lows and Renzi’s zeal has invigorated Italy, the impossible has indeed happened. Beyond the question of European leadership, Renzi has established a new model for center-left governance in Europe. His idealism is matched only by his energy: a combination key to reforming the stagnant European economies. As with Europe, if Hollande can emulate Renzi’s model and fervor for reforming, perhaps more than 1.3 Frenchmen in 10 will claim to support their President.

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