Written by Hilary Barnes
President Francois Hollande, his popularity at an all-time low as a result of his economic policy and high unemployment and his credibility under pressure from revelations of a love affair with an actress, was nevertheless in an offensive mood when he faced some 600 French and foreign journalists at a press conference at the Elysee Palace in PRIS on January 14.
He outlined a programme of reforms for the next three years of his mandate that he described as bigger than anything France had seen for decades, declaring that the reforms were essential to get France moving and to put government finances on a sound footing, which, he said, was a basic condition for maintaing the welfare state, international respect and a strong defence capability.
The president is a politician known for making statements which leave all his options open and do not antagonise the diverse factions on the left wing who support his government, made it crystal clear that the only way to generate employment and production was by co-operating with the business community.
This did not go down well with some of the main trade union federations or parties to the left of his own Socialist Party in the National Assembly.
It came out clearly in questions at the two-and-a-half hour press conference, with one left-wing journalist asking him whether he had become the “president for French business” and could he call himself a socialist any longer. Another sceptic asked whether he believed he could find a majority to carry his reform programme through.
Another left-winger, in a reference to his liaison with actress Julie Gayet, quipped that he had another undisclosed liaison, his love affair with liberalism.
And indeed the president for the first time said straight out that, yes, he is a social democrat – a label that to many in his Socialist Party smacks of betrayal of the true faith – and that means, he said, he is prepared to work to find solutions to the nation’s problems with business.
A pact of responsibility with business, already mentioned by him in a new year statement, is one of the main planks in his programme. It includes reductions between now and 2017 of some €30bn in social insurance charges that weigh heavily on the wage costs, reductions, too, in taxes on business, and simplification of the many regulations that face business.
Secondly, after relying heavily in the first 18 month of his mandate on raising taxes to bring the general government budget deficit under control, he said that in the coming three years the government will reduce public sector spending by €50bn, “something that has never been seen in France before“. He said that €50bn was about 4 % of total public expenditure.
There will be no direct reductions in social welfare programmes, but he said the government was determined to root out social welfare fraud and efforts must be made, among other things, to keep health care costs under control.
Measures on an unheard of scale to make teaching more attractive, and a big programme for the young to participate in civic service programmes and job-related education programmes were promised as a part of measures to assist the young, who are particularly hard hit by an unemployment level of about 24 %.
Television commentators seemed to be of the opinion that the president had performed well at the press conference, although some said that by the end of the event he was looking tired. Business leaders had already welcomed the pact of responsibility idea when first launched by the president.
Jean-Francois Copé, president of the conservative opposition party, the UMP , was satisfied by the general direction of some of the things the president had proposed, saying that they had long been advocated by the UMP, but pointed out that all the numbers were yet to be filled in and the final results of the government’s efforts would depend on how much agreement can be established between the trade unions and the employer organisations.
Ms Marine LePen, leader of the right populist National Front, which according to opinion polls could win more votes than any other (French) party in the elections to the European Parliament in June this year, said she feared the €50bn cuts in public expenditure faced the French with another three years of austerity.
The leader of the communist dominated CGT trade union federation, Thierry Lepaon, said he could not see that there was anything to talk about with the government and the leader of another of the more militant federations, the FO (Force Ouvriere), Jean-Claude Mailly, was similarly negative.
How opinion on the extreme left in the National Assembly develops will become crucial. The Socialist Party has an absolute majority, by a handful votes, but that majority could be de-stabilised if left-wingers in the Socialist Party itself as well as members even further to the left should turn rebellious, but that will not become clear until the crucial votes come due next autumn.
The president declined to answer questions about his private life, but did say that he hoped that the question of whether France’s current first lady, his companion Valerie Trierweiler, would continue in this role would be resolved before is scheduled visit to the USA on February 9.