Hollande vows to launch European initiative

Plan would set up an economic government for euro zone, says French president

French president François Hollande replies to questions after his speech at the Élysée Palace yesterday. Photograph: Benoit Tessier/Reuters

French president François Hollande replies to questions after his speech at the Élysée Palace yesterday. Photograph: Benoit Tessier/Reuters

Fri, May 17, 2013, 01:00


In what was only the second press conference of his presidency, François Hollande yesterday promised to “launch a European initiative” and remain true to his goal of “reversing the curve of unemployment”, despite the fact that France this week went back into recession.

Mr Hollande began his 2½-hour press conference before 400 journalists by talking about Europe. “Over the past year, the lines have moved in Europe,” he said. “The euro zone has stabilised. The banking union has been defined. Greece was saved, like other countries . . . This result, which I claim responsibility for, was only possible because France played the role of a link between northern and southern Europe, thanks to the indispensable Franco German couple, without which nothing can move forward.”


‘Languor’
As the head of state of a founding member, Mr Hollande continued: “My duty is to bring Europe out of its languor and diminish the disaffection of her peoples.” His four-point initiative would, he said, establish an “economic government for the euro zone, with a president assigned to this sole task”, elaborate a plan to help European youth, create a “European community of energy” to co-ordinate the transition to renewable energy, and move to a new level of integration “with a budgetary capacity”.

Criticised in France for immobility, Mr Hollande repeatedly used the words “offensive” and “movement”, as when he said: “Movement enables one to go faster. That’s why I am for movement. The only stable thing is movement, everywhere and always. There must be movement.”

There are more than 3.2 million unemployed in France, an all-time record. “The offensive here in France is to mobilise all our forces for employment,” Mr Hollande said. “There will not be hope in our country until unemployment starts going down.”

Referring to the “shock of simplification” he announced in March, Mr Hollande said: “Henceforward, the silence of the [government] administration will mean authorisation and not refusal. There will be deadlines, known in advance.”

When asked, he failed to elaborate. Mr Hollande repeatedly joked about his own unpopularity, saying, “I’m not trying to be unpopular. That wasn’t a goal I set for myself.”

Prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault recently said there is no austerity in France. But austerity seemed to loom ahead when Mr Hollande spoke of reforming the pension and family allowance systems. Nicolas Sarkozy’s pension reform had left a €15 billion deficit. “Can I, as president of the Republic, leave €20 billion in deficits in 2020?” he asked, confirming that “since people live longer, they will have to work a little longer”.

France’s policy of paying bonuses for children had given it the highest fertility rate in Europe, Mr Hollande said. But there was a deficit of more than €2 billion on €51 billion in expenditure. “We have to find €2 billion savings on family policy.” Affluent families will no longer be entitled to the same benefits.


Relaunching Europe
A few weeks after a heated argument over a socialist party document that denounced “the selfish intransigence of Chancellor Merkel”, Mr Hollande said he and the German leader “do not have the same political sensibility, but we have the same responsibility”. The recession was more severe in Germany than in France, he claimed. He predicted that he and Mrs Merkel would reach agreement on “relaunching” Europe before the German election.

Asked about opinion polls showing most British people want to leave Europe, Mr Hollande replied: “Europe existed before Great Britain joined. I would like Great Britain to stay in the union. Political forces favour her leaving . . . I want the euro zone to go forward because it is the heart of Europe.”