François Hollande’s first 36 hours, decentralisation and Gaston Defferre

It is possible that François Hollande’s first 36 hours in office will stay in the collective French memory bank for some time to come.

First, not only was May 15, 2012 unseasonably cool, but it also rained all day in Paris, giving Hollande reason for a few changes of clothes between engagements. He was soaked by the time he reached the Arc de Triomphe that morning (photo). Before that, he had refused to accompany the Sarkozys to their car and, in his first speech as president, had something polite to say about each previous president’s accomplishments except for his predecessor, to whom he dryly extended his best wishes (one wonders), ‘for his new life ahead‘. Even some diehard leftist commentators thought Hollande could have maintained protocol as previous presidents have and could have said that Sarkozy did his best for France in a difficult and unexpected economic crisis.

This post summarises most of yesterday’s events up to lunch. In the afternoon, Hollande paid tribute to Marie Curie — touching on the themes of women, immigrants and integration — and to Jules Ferry, responsible for free state education in France at the end of the 19th century. I’ll go into the controversy surrounding his choice of Ferry separately, as there is much to unpack.

The weather got worse as the day went on. During the evening hours, thunderstorms broke out. It’s hard to know what to make of momentous events on rainy days. My wedding day was not unlike Hollande’s first day in office. My mother said not to worry, because rain brings good luck; I celebrated my 20th wedding anniversary last year. However, some French bloggers have noted the rain and storms as a judgment from the gods or God Himself. The heavens opened as soon as Sarkozy left the Elysée Palace.

By the time Hollande boarded his jet for Berlin for an evening meeting with Angela Merkel, the lightning was well under way. His plane was no sooner off the ground when a bolt of lightning struck it and the pilot was forced return to the airport in Villacoublay.  There Hollande changed planes and flew on to Berlin where he and Frau Merkel held a joint press conference pledging to work together for economic recovery.

Today, May 16, Hollande’s ministerial line-up will have been revealed sometime during the afternoon. Martine Aubry — she of the 35-hour week and daughter of Jacques Delors — will not be in the cabinet. However, expect her to play a significant behind-the-scenes role in further galvanising the PS for the parliamentary elections in June.

As I write, Jean-Marc Ayrault, 62, is the new Prime Minister. RMC announced that Ayrault has since resigned as mayor of Nantes (44 – Loire-Atlantique), a post he has held since 1989. Before that, Nantes was a true blue stronghold. Ayrault is considered a local but nonetheless powerful ‘baron’ of the Parti Socialiste. He is also pro-Europe and close to Hollande. He is fluent in German, which will help in discussions with Frau Merkel’s advisors.

Pierre-René Lemas, 60, is the new secretary general of the Elysée Palace. He will be ideal for the post, striking all the correct PS notes. He was born in Algeria, is a graduate (as is Hollande) of the Ecole National d’Administration (ENA) and has been a well-placed civil servant throughout his career, both in departmental posts and as assistant director in the ministry for overseas territories (DOM-TOM).

Interestingly, Lemas, like Hollande (see retrospective photo montage), began his influential rise during the Mitterand years. In 1983, he was appointed to the cabinet of the then Minister of the Interior, Gaston Defferre. The following year he worked as technical advisor to Pierre Joxe where he was in charge of decentralisation. This post led to his aforementioned DOM-TOM responsibilities.  There has been much discussion on RMC about Hollande’s plans for decentralisation in France involving a devolution of powers from central government to regions, possibly to the detriment of departmental autonomy.  If this is a possible direction for Hollande’s government, Lemas’s expertise should prove useful.

More ministerial appointments will be analysed here. As I write mid-afternoon, I predict that Manuel Valls will become Minister of the Interior — a big contrast to Sarkozy’s Claude Guéant.

Now a word about Gaston Defferre, much disliked among conservatives, elderly pieds-noirs and French people who felt they had to move away from Marseille.

Defferre (1910-1986) helped to make Marseille the dump it is today. Sorry to say, but if you were to look at pictures of how it used to be and what it is now, you would weep.

Defferre was born into a Protestant family. French Protestants, by and large, have been resistant to the status quo and to French republican values, and I say that as a Protestant. (Lionel Jospin is another example, although relatively benign by comparison.) He became a barrister in 1931 and a militant socialist two years later in Marseille.  During the Second World War, he was active in the socialist side of the Resistance and spent time in London as part of this effort, operating under various pseudonyms. Shortly after the Liberation in 1944, he and a group of his fellow travellers seized control of the local daily newspaper, Le Petit Provençal which became Le Provençal.

Defferre became mayor of Marseille that same year. He was succeeded by a Communist in 1945, but would resume office in 1953 and hold it until his death in 1986. More on this in a moment; for now, film buffs can start thinking of a popular film made in the 1970s which will add a few clues.

Between 1956 and 1957, Defferre held a ministerial position influential in decolonising France’s African possessions. He occupied a Senate seat between 1959 and 1962. It was in 1962 that the pieds-noirs from Algeria began returning to the mainland. One would think that, having helped to lay the groundwork for decolonisation, he would have supported the reintegration of French people living in Algeria. Keep in mind the logical port of arrival was Marseille.

But, no, Defferre wasn’t having any of it. Before the Assemblée Nationale in July 1962, he shouted:

They must be hanged!

That same month, he elucidated his viewpoint further:

Marseille has 150,000 too many residents. Let them re-adapt elsewhere!

Yet, many pieds-noirs wanted to return to families living elsewhere in France. Regardless, look at the type of people he thought would be a ‘destabilising influence’ to his city.

Also interesting (same link) is what Louis Joxe had to say to the Council of Ministers, again in July 1962:

The pieds-noirs will infect France with fascism … It would be better for them to go to Argentina or Brazil or Australia.

Louis Joxe was the father of Pierre Joxe — like Gaston Defferre — another former boss of the new Secretary General of the Elysée, Pierre-René Lemas. And all three, along with Hollande, were part of the first Mitterand administration. Think of how dewy-eyed Hollande was at the time. At age 32, Lemas was only just dry behind the ears.

The elders’ perspectives almost by default are transmitted to the next generation, wouldn’t you say? Especially given a man’s loyalty to his superiors. I still tend to think of politicians as isolated individuals; however, this would be wrong, as many networks have been at work for generations. And one network feeds another. It’s not a conspiracy, just politics.

Speaking of Mitterand, strangely (or perhaps not), Defferre was his first choice for Minister of the Interior in 1981. The only thing that held the Socialist president back was Defferre’s age. Not surprisingly, Defferre jumped at the chance, if only figuratively. He also was put in charge of decentralisation — hmm, a recurring theme here, said to be one of the ‘great reforms of the Left‘. So, Hollande might well be copying out of his sponsor Mitterand’s playbook. It was a longstanding period of reform; Defferre stayed in various posts along the same theme until 1986.

Meanwhile, back in Marseille, things grew from bad to worse and Le Provençal, as the party/city politics house organ, aided and abetted. Defferre’s long term as mayor of the city was punctuated by scandals mixing politics and the local mafia. The French Connection revealed to a worldwide audience Marseille’s status as the drug-smuggling centre of Europe.  The mafia there were French until recently; now it is a more African-inspired group of criminal gangs.

It also became a magnet for immigrants, not only for some of the pieds-noirs of the early 1960s but also for later arrivals from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. Defferre had modern, soulless council flats built for them (see photo). He also had fake beaches constructed; originally known as Gaston Defferre beaches, they are now known as the Prado beaches.

Marseille has had a Conservative mayor since 1995. Even given that expanse of time, Jean-Claude Gaudin has not been able to clean up Gaston Defferre’s mess, with each arrondissement having its own mayor, a number of them Socialists.

Gaston Defferre’s Marseille and Hollande’s clinging to Mitterand’s presidency makes for an unusual and unfortunate mix of politics and policy.  Marseille as model city? Stay tuned.

4 comments for “François Hollande’s first 36 hours, decentralisation and Gaston Defferre

  1. May 17, 2012 at 7:27 am

    I did wonder about the influx and impact of the blacks and others from Africa, given that it’s a big issue on Lampedusa and in southern Spain and always was, historically. So the gangs have changed? Interesting.

    I do thank you for your insights. There’s the French MSM, just as we have the English speaking MSM and all you get is the media’s line. Interesting to get other perspectives.

    • May 17, 2012 at 2:53 pm

      Thanks, James! More to follow on Marseille.

  2. ivan
    May 17, 2012 at 10:22 am

    The thing I find interesting is the way the new president rushes off to Germany at the first opportunity, just as his predecessors from the same area did during WW2 – what is it with the Vichy?

Comments are closed.