In the same week in mid-August riots broke out in the northern city of Amiens, the first major civil unrest since François Hollande won the presidency in May, the first Socialist Party candidate to do so since 1995.
This is a far cry from the “fairer and socially just France” that Hollande promised in his victory speech. While his popularity has plummeted to 44 percent, in the next month he faces the challenge of preparing a budget for 2013 that will have to cut 30 billion euros to meet EU deficit reduction rules. Meanwhile unions are ramping up the pressure for a day of action on 9 October.
One hundred days into the Sarkozy presidency in 2007 and he was still resting comfortably on popularity ratings of 61 percent. So why have Hollande’s fortunes been so short-lived?
Part of the answer lies in the nature of his election. Hollande clearly benefited from (and contributed to) what we could call the “Syriza effect”. With the French and Greek elections coinciding on 7 May this fed into broader hopes for an alternative to austerity in Europe.
The significant support Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate for the radical left Front de Gauche, was able to mobilise also helped to pull Hollande to the left in the first round of the election. Similarly we shouldn’t underestimate the desire by millions of people across France to vote for (to quote a headline from Le Monde) “anyone but Sarko”.
But Hollande was never the Socialist Party’s first choice as candidate. The divisions that plagued the party after Dominique Strauss Khan was faced with rape allegations are now re-emerging. The minister of the interior Manuel Valls, who was the first minister to reach Amiens after the riots, has been dubbed “a left wing Sarkozy”. Valls has distanced himself from many of Hollande’s policies for social justice. He has publicly backed the previous administration’s stance on immigration and for doing so, scarily, has become the most popular minister in Hollande’s government.
But internal division is clearly not the only problem that has blighted Hollande’s first 100 days. While France does not face an immediate spending crisis (its borrowing costs are the lowest they have been since the introduction of the euro) unemployment is rising steeply and is set to hit three million by the end of September. To counter it Hollande has promised employers a programme where the state will pay 75 percent of the salary for 150,000 jobs.
Another major test facing Hollande’s government is the decision by Peugeot to close a car plant outside Paris, which will lay off 6,500 workers. It will be the first car plant to shut in France in 20 years. Hollande angrily denounced the move, saying it “is not acceptable, and therefore it will not be accepted.” But if Peugeot calls the government’s bluff, it is far from clear what actions it will take. Nationalising the plant will involve a serious clash with big business.
As Hollande gears up to outline the French budget on 23 September, the CGT, France’s largest union, has sworn to fight job cuts with a day of action and mass demonstrations in October. Ballots for strike action are also being issued to a number of workplaces. The Front de Gauche and Green Party have called a mass rally in Paris on 30 September to demand a referendum on the EU fiscal pact.
Whatever happens it is clear that, for now at least, Hollande’s victory has boosted workers’ confidence to fight. It has also strained tensions between Germany and France at a time when the bail outs of Greece and Spain seem in serious jeopardy.
Hollande’s shaky repositioning, one minute agreeing to joint meetings with Germany, the next outlining his plans to move closer to Spanish prime minister Rajoy and Italian prime minister Monti, are reflective of his caution. And yet, with the cuts that he plans to make, one commentator asked if the man once dubbed “Mr Normal” will become “Mr Neoliberal”.
Rather than Hollande’s honeymoon period coming to an end, it seems it never happened. The French satirical magazine Le Canard Enchaîné, reported in late August that a batch of luxury designer Spanish cushions had been ordered by the president while on holiday in the Cote d’Azur. While the presidential backside may have been cushioned temporarily, no doubt there is a bumpy ride to come.
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