President François Hollande must have dreaded the day when Martine Aubry would break her silence. The mayor of Lille remains "la dame des 35 heures", who, as labour minister in the 1997-2000 Jospin government, ushered in the 35-hour working week and created 750,000 government-financed youth jobs.
"I cannot resign myself to watching our country sink into morosity and doubt and turn inward," Aubry told Le Journal du Dimanche (JDD) yesterday. "It's not too late to succeed, on condition we take the right path for the next two years."
Aubry had met Hollande or his prime ministers six times since the May 2012 presidential election. "What she told them in private was sometimes more violent than what she says today in our columns," the JDD reported.
They ignored her complaints, so Aubry has sided publicly with Arnaud Montebourg, Benoît Hamon and Aurélie Filippetti, the cabinet ministers who were sacked in August because they found French government policy too "austere".
Aubry's demand "that we reorient economic policy" could scarcely occur at a worse time for Hollande. The European Commission disapproves of the French draft budget France sent to Brussels on October 15th – too much spending, not enough cuts and especially, no structural reform. The EU could, in theory, fine France up to €6.6 billion for failing to meet its commitments.
The Socialist Party leader Jean-Christophe Cambadélis used the revolutionary term "states general" to describe the debate he has organised on "the Socialist Party's identity card" between now and December 6th. Aubry places her intervention in the context of Cambadélis's "états généraux".
The weary electorate is likely to agree with the radio commentator Thomas Legrand, who complained that "the socialists ought to have settled this debate before getting themselves elected!"
The ideological dispute that Aubry spread over four newspaper pages yesterday is a family quarrel. Aubry is the daughter of Jacques Delors, the former president of the European Commission who oversaw the creation of the single European market. Hollande was one of his closest aides and an adept of Delors’s brand of centrist social democracy.
Aubry has always positioned herself to the left of her father and Hollande. She succeeded Hollande as Socialist leader from 2008 until 2012, but Hollande defeated her for the party’s presidential nomination.
Aubry advocates halving the €41 billion in tax credits which Hollande has promised French businesses. She would redistribute the other half to government-subsidised jobs, government-subsidised rent, more family allowances and lower water and energy bills.
Government-created jobs are “a stop-gap measure”, Aubry admits, “but while we wait to re-establish growth, they are vital.”
Prime minister Manuel Valls and economy minister Emmanuel Macron have launched several trial balloons in recent days, suggesting that unemployment benefits, which are more generous and last longer in France than elsewhere, should be subject to discussion. They even hinted that the administration might crack down on benefits fraud.
Each time, Hollande disavowed them, adding to confusion over what his policies really are. As Françoise Fressoz wrote in Le Monde: "Social-liberal or social-democrat, François Hollande? Don't try to figure it out. There is no line. Just disarray in mid-term, in the face of a continuously deteriorating economic situation."
“One doesn’t reform unemployment insurance at a time when there are so many unemployed,” Aubry insists, adding that the subject should not be broached until the present agreement expires in 2016. “To question this system today is like saying the jobless are responsible for unemployment, or that they are committing fraud.” She was “profoundly shocked” that the government mentioned such things.
Macron often points out that “by over-protecting, it [the government] protects no one”.
Aubry harks back to 1945-1970, the golden era of “the welfare state that collectively managed risks to health, employment, retirement, family, through a regime of social protection”. Calling for “a new social democracy,” she says: “We must finish with the old liberal recipes.”
Sunday labour was stopped a century ago. Unemployment insurance was established 60 years ago; the 35-hour week 16 years ago. “To question them today . . . will not create jobs. Are we going to spend the 21st century undoing what we accomplished in the 20th?”