François Hollande and the Dark Art of PR

On his blog “French Politics,” Arthur Goldhammer remarks on the appointment of Claude Sérillon to help with “public relations”:

“François Hollande has apparently decided that his PR operation needs shoring up, so he has brought in Claude Sérillon, a newsman who anchored a prime time broadcast in the ’80s, to advise him on such matters. We’ll see what changes this brings. The problem is that Hollande’s initial coup de comm’ was to characterize himself as a president who would favor substance over framing, the long game over winning the news cycle, and a vision of governance as a collective rather than an individual effort. Perhaps Sérillon can find a way to dramatize these values, but their appeal lies precisely in their being undramatic, even anti-dramatic, but ultimately more effective than cheap histrionics. No doubt Hollande is disappointed that what he takes to be his quiet virtues have not been sufficiently recognized, but can he enhance their appeal by selling them a little more vociferously?”

I think this is not such a bad move by Hollande. His approval ratings are in free fall and he clearly needs to change something and improving the way in which he communicates with the people is essential no matter what other choices he makes. If he continues to simply sit like a bump on a log, he needs to sell that to the French people as the wisest course of action (in inaction, as the case may be).

Perhaps, as an added bonus, M. Sérillon can work with Hollande on being more decisive and forceful in imposing himself and his policies on his government and elsewhere.

There is another, more serious point to be made about this. The implication of Goldhammer’s post is that by reaching out to Claude Sérillon, Hollande is choosing framing over substance. I think that’s right. Yet, it is hard to see what else Hollande can do to improve his situation if he isn’t willing to take some risks and ruffle some feathers.

I have been thinking back over a number of exchanges between myself and Arthur Goldhammer since Hollande’s election and it seems to me that in largely talking past one another we have inadvertently described Hollande’s dilemma. I have regularly counseled bold action. For example, I have advocated that Hollande demand that the ECB function as a normal central bank and that he demand abandonment of radical austerity in favor of stimulus and growth. I have said that he should leave the euro or even break with the EU if his demands are refused (and many other actions which I won’t catalog).

Goldhammer and others have often responded by arguing that Hollande has very limited freedom of action. He is hemmed in by German power at the ECB and other EU institutions; he is constrained by the reality that he can’t print more euros in the way that French governments could print more francs and he is constrained by a government which seems to consist of a very loose alliance of barons over whom he has limited control; there is no support among the other leaders for a move against Germany; this treaty or that treaty says he can’t do what I advocate and so forth.

Regrettably, it occurs to me that M. Goldhammer and I are both right. Hollande is like the gingerbread man who can’t run until he gets hot but can’t get hot unless he runs. He seems constrained from doing what is necessary to save France, yet he’s also unwilling even to try to free himself from those constraints.

I think my advise is correct because if Hollande does nothing, France will suffer greatly and so will the PS at the next election. On the other hand, Goldhammer is right that Hollande’s is constrained in all of these many ways. And if it’s true that these constraints prevent him from doing what’s necessary to get France out of this mess and the chains are unbreakable then Hollande is probably finished, no matter what.

I think Hollande needs to at least fight the good fight. As things stand now, he’s really got nothing to lose and the world to gain. If he can’t or won’t fight for the policies he has said are necessary, where else can he turn but to the dark art of public relations?