Dissent, Distrust, Defiance
Written by Hilary Barnes
For France’s President Francois Hollande the past couple of weeks have been terrible. Nothing is going right for him and his government.
It is not just that the economic news has been awful; the country is in the grip of a serious case of “protestitis”, a diagnosis supported by one opinion poll that found that only 15 % of the population have a positive opinion of the president, which beats all previous records by a wide margin.
As the president headed an Armistice Day remembrance parade down the Champs Elysée on November 11, he suffered the indignity of being booed by a couple of hundred demonstrators, a case of bad manners that outraged just about everyone without generating sympathy for the president.
A few days earlier Standard and Poor’s, the rating agency, reduced the state’s debt rating to AA. On November 14 it was announced that France’s GDP fell by 0.1 % in the third quarter, dashing hopes raised in the second quarter (GDP +0.4%) that a recovery was on the way, while third quarter employment in the market sector of the economy (about 65 % of total employment) declined again.
The president has staked his reputation on a promise that the upward curve of unemployment, now 11% according to Eurostat, will be broken by the end of the year, but he appears to be about the only person who thinks this is possible. Commentators wonder what it will do for his approval rating when, rather than if, he is wrong.
At the same time every day brings reports of new movements springing up to protest against the government, most of them motivated by woes caused by increases in taxation.
So far the protests are somewhat unusual for France in that they do not have their origins and base in Paris and are not under the control of the Paris-based institutions – the political parties, the trade unions, the employer organisations, all the most influential pressure groups, in addition to the government and the administration – that collectively rule a very centralised nation.
A second feature of the protests is that they are not of social class against class, but just about everyone against the government, though they have not shown any signs of coalescing into a united mass movement that might sweep the Fifth Republic into the dustbin of history.
The list is long. Earlier this year there were huge demonstrations in Paris against homosexual marriage legislation by groups with by ethical and religious objections.
At about the same time, a protest against new taxes on capital by high tech start-up entrepreneurs sprang up, while subsequently protests against new taxes levied on popular savings policies such as life assurance were in the news.
Artisans, craftsmen and owners of small shops are also up in arms against increases in taxes and social insurance charges, complaining that for every hour that passes six small businesses have gone bust (about 54,000 according to Bank of France figures) over the past year.
Big and sporadically violent protests by the Breton farmers and their associates (management and labour force together) in the food processing industries against a new « green » road tax on heavy trucks have played a prominent part recently.
The protesters wear “bonnets rouge“, red caps, in memory of an uprising in 1675 against taxes imposed by Louis XIV, the Sun King. The bonnets rouge have received some support elsewhere, but the Paris power elite have probably comforted themselves with the thought that for the past 500 years or more provincial risings have not had much success in bringing down governments and regimes.
Horse riders and riding schools have been on streets to protest against an increase in the value added tax on equitation from 7 % to 20 % from January 1 next. Institutions that organise home help services for the elderly and disabled say a cut in a tax deduction and rising costs have led to the suppression of full 60,000 jobs over the past two years.
There is not much political sympathy for horse riders and those who can afford some home help, who are regarded as being well off enough to suffer new charges.
But those who work in these sectors will for the most part be paid at or close to the minimum wage. And it is by neglecting people like this that a socialist government that promised social justice and fairness has got the bird.
When a century ago the socialist movement first came into prominence, the public sector was too small to count for many votes. All the efforts of the labour movement went into improving the wages and conditions of the working classes.
But as western Europe has become much richer, two new electoral constituencies have arisen to attract the politicians’ greed for votes, the public sector, dominated by women, and the clients of the welfare state. Taken together, these account for a majority, or close to a majority, of the electorate.
When one looks at the priorities of President Hollande’s government, by relying almost entirely on tax increases in its efforts to reduce the budget deficit, it has favoured the public sector, here civil servants and other employees are strongly protected against unemployment, and abandoned the private sector labour force, and especially the young, who carry the brunt of unemployment.
Could that be one explanation for the graph published by Paul Krugman at his New York Times blog that shows how badly the recovery in employment in Europe has fared since 2008 compared with the Great Depression in the 1930s?
This development may also help to explain why some classes who would once have voted solidly for the socialists (once known as “blue collar” workers) now, in France, are drifting towards support for the right-populist National Front, anti-immigrant, anti-globalisation, nationalist and anti-European.
An odd sign of the times is that the protest movement reaches into the heart of the system of government, with the indirectly elected « upper » house of the legislature, the Senate, theoretically under control of government supporters, rejecting just about all important legislation that comes before it, with the 2014 government budget Bill expected to get the chop within a few days.
However, the directly elected National Assembly always out-votes the Senate if the two chambers disagree, but the situation leaves all concerned with a nagging suspicion that at some point in the not too distant future the Senate’s lack of loyalty to the government may spread to the National Assembly, although in the assembly the Socialist Party itself has an absolute majority, if a slim one.
If that happened, a dissolution of the National Assembly would be inevitable. There is however growing speculation that if the Francois Hollande and his government, headed by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, cannot get their act together in very short order and begin to regain a modicum of popular trust and support, a dissolution may be inevitable anyway.
The verdict of municipal elections in March and European Parliament election in June next year, although having no effect on the balance of power in the National Assembly, may be the key to the socialist government’s survival.
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