The French political machine is powering up again after a summer break, greatly in anticipation of December’s regional elections. This week, loyalists and members of France’s governing Socialist party, along with those from the Front National, have been gathering to muse party strategy and reflect on policy in the annual ‘université d’été’ conference season amid a stagnant economy and a large programme of reforms aimed at cutting down France’s large bureaucracy.

If last week was dominated by fall-out from the parricide of Front National co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, this week’s big story was a proverbial call to arms to rescue the flagging Socialist ship, together with the internal row within the government over the country’s sacred 35-hour working week.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls brought the party gathering to a close with a speech centred on the values of the Socialists, calling for members to be “proud”. So passionate was his hour-long address that his shirt was visibly soaked through with sweat. Among his pledges was the duty to help those fleeing war, torture, oppression and persecution, who “need” France’s help and “must” be welcomed.

On the 35-hour working week law, the holy cow of the French left, Valls considered the issue “clos”, or closed, after a series of heated public disagreements with rogue Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron. He argued it was a “false idea” for France to think it would create more jobs and grow more if people worked fewer hours, especially in comparison with other European nations, such as Britain or Italy. Favouring abstract language, Valls asserted: “What interests me is not the past but the future.”

Absent from the weekend conference, young members of the Socialists called for Macron’s resignation, booing at the mention of his name or allusion to his economic plan.

Macron, a former banker, has thus far divided political minds. For the traditionalist wing of the Socialist party, he is part of the elite, guilty of straying from traditional Socialist values, as Hollande positions himself as increasingly pro-business, after a purge of left-wing members from his cabinet last summer. Supporters say Macron is forcing France to face an inconvenient truth and, as such, adopt necessary reforms.

The minister said work should be a “central value of the left”, not a “taboo subject”.

Reforms for France’s flat economy are the order of the day as the unpopular government seeks to be seen as economically credible. Defiant as ever, Valls said: “We are pressing ahead with the deep reforms our economy needs” – “we won’t be swayed”. In the firing line, the country’s rigid labour laws, which have “become inefficient” and “curbed activity”.

In the crowd-pleasing address, the prime minister equally evoked the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January as a means of promoting equality and fighting against discrimination in France, and criticising the confusing, “incoherent” right of politics, and the reactionary far-right.

A survey for France’s Paris Match magazine this week confirmed a trend that the incumbent Socialist party would be eliminated in the first round of voting in the country’s presidential election in 2017. In first place – Marine Le Pen, whose popularity has suffered only slightly following the public execution of her outspoken father, Jean-Marie.

The poll also compared the fortunes of several Socialist leaders, pitting President against Prime Minister Valls and several other hypothetical candidates. It showed that Manuel Valls would do marginally better than François Hollande, beaten by Republican candidate and former President Nicolas Sarkozy by just one point.

For the FN’s part, Marion Maréchal Le Pen – the party’s only deputy in the south – would win the first round of voting in December elections. In the second round, to be held a week later, she would lose by a narrow gap of just 2 points, within the margin of error in this one poll. In this way, the fight between right and extreme right has rarely been closer, and evidently it’s all to play for in a battle of tight numbers.

The poll has given rise to suggestions that Prime Minister Valls, seen as performing well with 29-45 year olds, professionals and those with a higher education, is an attractive candidate for the Socialists if unemployment doesn’t fall, leaving an empty seat at the top of the party, after Hollande’s pledge to not stand as Socialist candidate in the 2017 presidential elections.

Valls is part of the social liberal wing of the Socialist party, known for widening the appeal of the party by positioning himself as a bold reformer, capable of breaking down party taboos.

Selling ambitious – albeit watered-down – and divisive reforms to the French people will play alongside questions within the equally divided Socialist government. Endless discussions about Hollande’s deep unpopularity will pose questions about the leadership of the party ahead of elections, particularly with Valls in mind as his successor. However, such leadership whispers, serve as nothing more than a great distraction from the more crucial economic questions facing France.

The outcome of the government’s five-year term will depend above all on the health of the French economy, and the all but uncertain fate of the programme of reforms. Survival is the best option for this Socialist government.

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