France’s Socialists survive another day

France’s Socialists survive another day

There were smiles on the faces of France’s Socialist MPs today. During a time of division, talk of leadership battles and polls that show the party falling behind the right and far right in next year’s presidential elections, you’d think there isn’t much to be happy about on the left of French politics.

Yet in this time of survival for the government, it didn’t come as a surprise that they saw through the defeat of a vote of no confidence on a controversial labour reform bill, seen as too pro-business by some, which has now been fast-tracked through to the Senate.

For governments in France, the number 49.3 is more often than not a sign of desperate times. This part of the constitution allows bills proposed by the government to avoid a vote by French MPs, making it closing to becoming law.

The last time it was used was last year to allow a package of disputed economic reforms, nicknamed the Loi Macron, after Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, to be pushed through parliament.

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France’s reformist Economy Minister, Emmanuel Macron

Even yesterday the party was under attack from within, as rebel backbench Socialist MPs put forward a vote of no confidence – a way of putting an end to this constitutional backdoor, before it was narrowly defeated.

It served as a crystallisation of just how difficult it is proving to enact reforms, loosening France’s unwieldy regulation and complex bureaucracy and kickstarting the country’s perpetually ailing economy.

The legislation aims to weaken the power of unions, make employers able to extend working hours beyond 35 hours and make it easier for them to fire and hire workers.

Scenes of tear gas, vandalism and violence on the streets of Paris and several other cities across the country, told a different story. Despite polls showing relatively low membership of worker’s unions – perhaps surprisingly given France’s long history of the worker rising against the rich and powerful elite – the influence of the unions can’t be underestimated.

Their voice may be loud, the scenes of their mobilisation great fodder for journalists, even that doesn’t seem enough to derail this government’s determination to make the economy more flexible and put it on a stable growth footing with unemployment hovering around 10 per cent.

The reform bill has set out to bring a more laissez-faire approach to the labour market, doing away with the current government-central diktat dictating regulation to employees in the form of a nearly four thousand page tome.

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France’s labour code

The Loi Travail, or Loi El Khromi – named after the labour minister, will continue through to the Senate next month, on 13th June. It could well be changed before it returns back to the lower house, when the government could once again dodge a bullet by resorting to its 49.3 constitutional back door.

The centre-right Les Républicains party voted against the government, with one of their MPs calling François Hollande’s five-year term as president “beyond all hope”.

Such a tense time for the left means it is open season for electioneering and exposing the Socialist party’s vulnerable position, which rests on Hollande’s promise to grow the economy and bring down unemployment. It’s a pledge which he made last year that only then will allow him to stand for election next year.

But with determination from France’s unions and an increasingly impatient mood for signs of economic prosperity, opposition to the bill means this headache for the French government is far from over.

The Front National’s power struggle

The Front National’s power struggle

Today might be the day the Front National got nearer than it’s ever been to controlling more than a town hall – but not enough.

The far-right party came top in six of France’s 13 regions, gaining 28 per cent of the vote overall, but latest polling shows that this second round vote for the FN in the north and south has become much tighter.

That’s not to deny the party its huge rise in popularity in the past few years. In last year’s European Parliament elections, it came first.

Today’s election will tell us that little bit more about the party’s chances in France’s presidential elections, under eighteen months away.

Another rise in the polls may be likely by then, but a Le Pen presidency is realistically off the cards. Instead it will be a race between the left and the right – both parties which have their own problems.

President François Hollande has pledged to stand only if unemployment goes down. For the moment, it’s a far from optimistic picture. October saw the highest monthly rise since 2013 – at 10.8 per cent.

In a continent where unemployment overall is in decline, France has been picking up. The figure was 1.2 per cent up on the month before, and 3.7 per cent greater compared with figures from the year before.

President Hollande’s popularity has been boosted by his leadership after the 13th November attacks – symbolically a month ago today. It’s always hard to say how much national politics sways opinion at a local level, but it’s an easy guess that France’s turbulent year will be playing on the minds of many voters.

And for former president Nicolas Sarkozy, he will need to battle a primary for leadership of the party into the elections, with rival Alain Juppé widely expected to beat him.

Sarkozy will also have to prove that his Republican Party isn’t just chasing the coat tails of the FN and swinging to the far right with populist policies.

Security issues have clearly been high on the list of voters’ worries, but with a government fighting so hard to reform France’s economy and with results so hard to see, economic recovery will be a tough sell for Hollande’s government going forward.

Europe has seen a sea change in its politics since the beginning of the financial crisis. Today will be proof – if more were needed – that France is a three party state, with Marine Le Pen rubbing shoulders with Sarkozy and Hollande a for a while longer yet.

While she may not claim seats and tangible power, the worries of Front National voters – French identity, France’s place in Europe, security issues and economic uncertainty – are problems that simply can’t go unnoticed if France’s politics wants to remain relevant – and not fearful of the all too real far right invasion.

Between now and spring 2017, there can be no more complacency as no party can really claim victory from these elections.

A question of taste for Charlie Hebdo

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The controversial Charlie Hebdo this week, criticised by the Kremlin. Credit: Charlie Hebdo

Just a few weeks ago, outgoing columnist at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Patrick Pelloux,  exclaimed: “Charlie Hebdo is dead”.

You would hardly think so after seeing the magazine’s two cartoons this week illustrating last Saturday’s downing of a Russian passenger flight over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, which killed 224 people.

The first depicted the smoking wreckage of the plane and a scattering of body parts surrounding a passenger’s skull wearing sunglasses which pointed to the “the dangers of Russian low-cost flights”. It was a gory, unforgiving image, even in cartoon form.

The other showed the plane’s debris – including broken bits of wings and the body of a passenger – falling on an Islamic State militant with the caption, “The Russian air force intensifies its air strikes”, after the country started its military operation at the end of September in an effort to prop up the Assad regime.

The Kremlin took no time at all in addressing the media on Friday to denounce the cartoons as “pure blasphemy”.

A spokesman from the Russian foreign ministry said they had nothing to do with democracy or freedom of expression, deeming the cartoons “unacceptable”.

Meanwhile, social media in Russia has been in uproar, with the hashtag “I am not Charlie” used to criticise the poor taste of the cartoons.

One tweet read: “Insane cynicism and a mockery of the memory of the victims of this terrible tragedy.”

The graphic depiction just under a week after Russia’s most deadly terrorist attack on its own people predictably touched a nerve. One of the country’s most popular social networks – VK – said the cartoons had been the most discussed topic among its 100 million active users.

Russian politicians have also taken to the airwaves to echo the Kremlin’s criticism.

This is a magazine which is continuing to sharpen its teeth and irreverence, nine months after gunmen stormed the magazine’s offices shooting twelve people dead.

Its editor-in-chief, Gérard Biard, came to the defence of the questionable taste of the cartoons. He said: “the Kremlin was using Charlie Hebdo to make a point.”

“They want to draw attention to two miserable cartoons and spark a controversy that’s unwarranted. It’s the usual manipulation of a totalitarian power”, he told AFP.

“We respect more values than those in power in Russia, like democracy, secularism and freedom of expression”, Biard said.

The terrorist attack back in January was seen as an attempt to threaten one of France’s most basic principles – freedom of expression, which the magazine displays in every issue.

It was a value that the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius defended on Friday with direct reference to this week’s controversial Charlie cartoons.

Fabius said: “Freedom of expression is a pillar of French democracy. There is no question of touching it.”

He defended the magazine’s illustrations, saying front covers of Charlie Hebdo may offend other countries, but in France – where there are different religious and social contexts – “they don’t pose any problems”.

The magazine has turned to political satire and current affairs for inspiration for its front page, steering clear of sensitive religious cartoons. Some worry this is self-censorship creeping into the magazine.

Most recently in the firing line has been President François Hollande’s make-or-break climate conference later this month in Paris, which commentators say will significantly shape his political legacy. This unpopular president is an easy target for derision, seen as flip-flopping on running the country.

Ten years after heavy rioting across the country, Charlie Hebdo said the next firestarter would be far-right Front National party leader Marine Le Pen – a frequent front cover star – in the presidential elections in 2017.

The cover of a recent edition of Charlie Hebdo. It reads:
The cover of a recent edition of Charlie Hebdo. It reads: “Welcome, migrants! You’re at home here!”
Credit: Charlie Hebdo.

The flow of migrants to Europe has been a frequent cover story this year in a typically imaginative style. One September issue shows former news anchor Claire Chazal, who says ISIS treats her better than her employer after she was fired from her job.

Another depicts a migrant who had come to France to learn Latin, poking fun at controversial school reforms.

The magazine is now on a more even footing, through the weight of trauma among its staff is never too far from the surface.

Sales are up and it has recently moved into new offices, but so are the death threats. Staff live under around-the-clock protection by police and bodyguards.

Infighting and depression have spread among the survivors of January’s attack, arguing over finances and the magazine’s future as millions pour into its coffers.

Just last month, Charlie Hebdo relaunched its website, offering readers a daily cartoon on all manner of subjects.

The site is even venturing beyond France’s borders with an English-language section of some of its editorials.

Pelloux, a columnist who left the magazine last month, citing fatigue said: “A part of us has gone with the attacks.”

At the beginning of this year, Charlie Hebdo was ripped apart from the inside.

Its resistance to worldwide pressure and controversy, they hope, won’t allow the magazine to simply fade away.

Time is no healer for France’s banlieues

Time is no healer for France’s banlieues

It was one of France’s darkest periods in recent times. Ten years ago today, three weeks of violence spread across Paris and throughout the country following the accidental deaths of  two teenagers in a police chase. It underlined deep divisions and inequalities in some of France’s and Paris’ most neglected neighbourhoods, problems dating back to the eighties that many say still haven’t gone away.

Teenagers Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore came from Clichy-sous-Bois, a poor immigrant suburb of Paris effectively cut off from the rest of the world without any road or rail links. There was – and is – nothing there to keep kids entertained, residents say.

The Guardian
Killed by accident: teenagers Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore

The two, together with a friend, Muhittin Altun, found themselves near a break-in as police officers arrived to investigate. They ran to hide, headed for a power substation. They were apparently aware of the danger as they climbed over the wall. Zyed, 17, and Bouna, 15, were both electrocuted.

Tensions quickly rose, which protesters said were because of a frustration with high unemployment and police brutality.

What followed were three weeks of violence, which within days of uprisings in and around Paris spread to many other French cities like Bordeaux, Toulouse and Lyon.

In total, 10,000 cars were burnt, 300 buildings destroyed or damaged, 6,000 arrests and 1,300 people serving a prison sentence.

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France’s difficult ethnic and social tensions under the spotlight in 1995 film La Haine

Such problems – and reactions – served as inspiration for one of France’s all-time most popular films, La Haine, from 1995, which depicted the struggles of daily life in an abandoned Paris suburb through its three multi-ethnic protagonists: a Jew, an Arab and an African. They wander the streets of the monochrome city after their friend is beaten by police and in a coma in hospital. The one message of the film – la haine attire la haine, hatred breeds hatred. As relevant to its main protagonist, who flaunts a gun stolen from a policeman, as to a largely ignorant and uncompassionate police force.

One of the key themes of the film was the crisis of French identity for first and second generation immigrants. For them, just how relevant are those typically French values of liberty, equality and fraternity?

Trapped in a cycle of crime, often drug or gang related, the feeling of alienation is in many cases understandable.

The climate in today’s France isn’t helping either. An economy dragging its heels, with growth so scarce it can’t create jobs, no matter how much politicians try to sound optimistic.

In years gone by, neighbourhoods have seen billions of euros of investment from the state, ultimately without results. Merely throwing money at a difficult area is not even scratching the surface of a multitude of social issues.

Unemployment in France hasn’t fallen substantially from around ten per cent in three years. Data from Insée in 2013 showed unemployment among immigrants – those born outside France with or without French nationality who often populate the deprived Parisian banlieues – was just under double the figure for people born in France. A lack of qualifications, the inability to reach public-sector jobs and discrimination are all factors behind such glaring inequality.

Add in the complex political dynamic and the future looks all the more bleak. The rise of far right politics with the Front National has made a minority hostile to migrants, even if the FN rejects the notion of being xenophobic.

1421077125168The perceived threat of Islam, behind the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, has made France feel vulnerable amid the rush of national unity. Those responsible for the attacks, brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, were born in France to Algerian parents. Chérif had been involved in jihadist gang and was arrested in January 2005 when he and another man were heading for Syria.

In prison, he met Amedy Coulibaly, a radicalised Muslim, who killed a policewoman in the hours following the Charlie Hebdo attack on 7th January. The following day, he killed four people after holding up a Kosher supermarket. Addressing his hostages, he said: “I am Amedy Coulibaly, Malian and Muslim. I belong to the Islamic State.”

What, then, drove these French nationals to attack their own?

Many blame a failure to integrate disaffected youth, an inability to break down the iron curtain separating out-of-town areas of Paris from the rest of France.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Prime Minister Manuel Valls conceded: “There is, indeed, social, ethnic and territorial apartheid in France.”

Yet the Front National went further and capitalised on the crisis, blaming “20 years of mistakes” in immigration and Europe which had provided a breeding ground for radical Islam – even proposing a referendum on the death penalty.

One solution that sees broad agreement across the political spectrum is the value of secularism (laïcité), separating religion from state, and in schools, becoming tougher on discipline.

But the problem is at worse psychological – and deep-seated. Discrimination breeds hate, which breeds violence.

During the 2005 riots, the Interior Minister at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, was accused for inflammatory language, reportedly calling the rioters “racaille”, loosely translated as “rabble”.

The vulnerable, voiceless and disaffected in France cannot be filled with optimism as they look at the rise of the hostile extreme-right and no movement on social mobility. Inequality – and the threat to public order – is going nowhere.

MORE | Timeline: French riots (BBC News)

A false start for France’s presidential election

A false start for France’s presidential election

The battle lines are drawn in a hotly contested presidential election – that’s a year and a half away.

How far France swings to the centre-right or the extreme right will be the big headline when the country goes to the polls in spring 2017.

The second – how big the defeat for France’s most unpopular president, François Hollande. He can do little more than survive the political storm to come, as the economy stutters along. However, there are encouraging signs from business and confidence as the effects of controversial reforms start to bear fruit.

That’s not to forget important elections this December in France’s regions which are the last test for parties before the country elects a new President. Campaigning is already in full force.

President Hollande addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, Front National leader Marine Le Pen stood up in the European Parliament in Strasbourg in front of Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, armed with a double blow.

Hollande and Merkel in turn addressed a room full of Euro MPs, calling for more Europe at a time when the continent is more divided than ever over the influx of migrants and refugees. It was a speech that many deemed lacklustre. For Ms Le Pen, it provided her a platform to deliver some memorable, hardhitting soundbites. She was on a roll in her three-minute address.

Le Pen called Hollande Germany’s “vice-chancellor” who had sold out to a Berlin-dominated Europe. And to Mrs Merkel, she said: “I don’t recognise you, Madam.”

Hollande mustered some steel, saying the EU was a bastion against the “return of nationalism, populism [and] extremism”.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls characterised the situation with the FN as “worrying”. From the opinion polls to the division in the party and the left of politics, Valls recognises the more-than-credible threat from the rise of Le Pen – he is not alone.

Sarkozy's ally, Nadine Morano, who called France
Sarkozy’s ally, Nadine Morano, who called France “a country of the white race”

Nicolas Sarkozy has himself been embroiled in an internal affair this week which threatens the Republican party’s image just a few months since its rebrand. One deputy, Nadine Morano, has been pulled as a candidate from December’s regional elections after calling France “a country of the white race”. Only a few days later did Mr Sarkozy see the comments of one of his most loyal allies unacceptable. It is a huge deal for the party seized upon by their opponents.

Sarkozy is all too aware of the battle with the Front National. It is a tricky balancing act to appeal to FN voters and at the same time not lose moderate support in the important centre ground. One pollster said: “People prefer the original to the copy.” Sarkozy runs the risk of overstepping the line by putting FN sentiment into the political mainstream by simply legitimising them. No such threat from Mr Hollande, whose days, Sarkozy said, were numbered.

There’s no topic more divisive than that of immigration, despite the country’s insecure economic footing as Europe’s second-largest. The FN’s anti-immigration stance is one which is likely to see them win in the north of the country as well as its traditional stronghold in the south-east at the least.

Air France executive rescued by security
Air France executive rescued by security in a violent protest in Paris

It is also a week which saw scenes of violent protests at Air France in Paris over 3,000 jobs lost plastered across international newspapers and TV screens. An shameful reminder of the French stereotype of going out on strike which turned ugly. Hollande said such images had “serious consequences” for the image of France. For critics, it served as an opportunity to point to France’s footdragging on reforms. A large section of French business has long grown inefficient and uncompetitive. They’re only starting to realise that they have some way to go to regain lost ground in the global economy.

This electoral rollercoaster ride shows the damage of untimely blunders in the unforgiving political arena. In the words of Nicolas Sarkozy, it is a fight to the death.

More: Air France turbulence may end in crash, The Independent

France’s unpredictable political machine fires up once more

France’s unpredictable political machine fires up once more

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.