France in 2013

Good year/bad year? How did 2013 work out for 14 famous French folk?

How was 2013 for them? French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (L) and President François Hollande
How was 2013 for them? French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (L) and President François Hollande Reuters/Christian Hartmann

What with economic crisis in Europe and international instability, 2013 was not the best of years for many of us. How has it been for the politicians, agitators and celebrities who hit the headlines in France?


François Hollande, president

French President François Hollande during a visit to Michelet school in Denain, 3 September, 2013
French President François Hollande during a visit to Michelet school in Denain, 3 September, 2013 AFP/Pool/Denis Charlet

Becoming president is as about as high as any French politician can fly. But that was last year. Since then it’s been downhill all the way for François Hollande.

LISTEN: François Hollande and the opinion polls

His ratings have sunk to the point where he now holds the dubious distinction of being the most unpopular president on record.

The reasons?

Right-wing voters were never going to be happy. Their side has held the top job for 46 of the last 54 years and many are convinced that the Socialists live to raise taxes, mollycoddle criminals and pander to minorities.

The legalisation of gay marriage confirmed their worst fears on the latter question And the government’s breach of its pledge to tax the rich but not the less well-off as the economy floundered won it no friends.

But Hollande’s own supporters have also deserted him, exasperated by the continuing rise in unemployment plus splits in the government over law and order, the Roma and so many other questions, continuous gaffes and a general impression of amateurish bungling.

But it’s not all been bad news.

François Hollande in Africa

Francois Hollande greets a cheering crowd at Independence Plaza in Bamako on 2 February, 2013
Francois Hollande greets a cheering crowd at Independence Plaza in Bamako on 2 February, 2013 Reuters/Joe Penney

If he wants to salvage his career, Hollande might consider moving to Mali, where he received a rapturous reception in February as French troops chased Islamist militias and Tuareg separatists into the desert wastes of the north of the country.

Dossier: War in Mali

True, since then President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has complained that the French are forcing him to talk to Tuareg armed groups and the violence continues in the north but, for the moment, the balance is positive.

That seems to be the case in the Central African Republic (CAR), too, for now. There crowds cheered French troops arriving with a mission to restore peace. But analysts warn that the CAR is not Mali. Already Muslims are accusing the French of pro-Christian bias, while Christians want interim President Michel Djotodjia to go.

But ironically the Socialist government’s biggest apparent success has been in sending troops to former French colonies.

Jean-Marc Ayrault, prime minister

Jean-Marc Ayrault
Jean-Marc Ayrault Reuters

He’s not quite as low in the polls as his boss but that’s not saying much.

When Ayrault was whisked from being mayor of the provincial city of Nantes to the premiership, many commentators, including some of his Socialist comrades, asked whether, having never held a ministerial portfolio, he was up to the job.

They’re still asking the same question now. But louder.

This week Socialist Speaker, Claude Bartolone, declared that parliament has to “make do with” whoever the president appoints prime minister, Hollande more or less washed his hands of Ayrault’s promised tax reform and everybody laid into a study group’s report on racism and integration.

Ayrault is putting on a brave face but not even his best friend would pretend that he is leading a united cabinet or a united party. By the way, who is his (best) friend?

Laurent Fabius, minister for foreign affairs 

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hugs French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius after a ceremony at the United Nations in Geneva
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hugs French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius after a ceremony at the United Nations in Geneva Reuters/Denis Balibouse

The former prime minister may feel that his talents are not used to the full talking to foreigners all the time but at least it keeps him out of the economic spotlight.

He and Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian have enjoyed association with the Mali and CAR interventions, while not having to tell the unemployed to keep their patience until better times arrive.

Fabius also had the pleasure of throwing a spanner in the works of Western talks with Iran last month – gaining the plaudits of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the US’s neo-conservatives, usually no friends of France.

Then he had the pleasure of taking it out again and allowing a deal to be reached, reminding the world that French may no longer be the language of international diplomacy but the world still has to listen to what Paris has to say.

Jérôme Cahuzac, former budget minister

Jérôme Cahuzac waits for the start of a hearing at the National Assembly in Paris, 23 July, 2013
Jérôme Cahuzac waits for the start of a hearing at the National Assembly in Paris, 23 July, 2013 Reuters/Benoit Tessier

First your wife decides to divorce you - employing a private investigator to that end - then a rival sends a website a tape of you discussing a secret Swiss bank account, then you’re found to have dodged taxes for your hair-transplant business, then you’re forced to beg for forgiveness, then you’re sacked, then you’re investigated for tax fraud … not a good year for anyone but for a budget minister, one of whose responsibilities is chasing tax-dodgers, about as bad as it can get.

Dossier: The Cahuzac affair

Curiously, Cahuzac entertained the illusion that he could make a comeback for several months after his public disgrace. That despite the fact that the supposed Socialist was found to have consorted with members of the far-right group Gud and to have been helped in his tax-dodging endeavours by an adviser to Front National chief Marine Le Pen.

Cahuzac’s boss, Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici, has survived the scandal, however, recently claiming responsibility for a plan to set up a European banking union to relieve taxpayers of the burden of saving failed banks.

Jean-François Copé and François Fillon, right-wing politicians

Jean-François Copé (L) with François Fillon
Jean-François Copé (L) with François Fillon Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

In the wake of the 2012 election defeat, the terrible twins of the French right fought the war of Sarkozy’s succession in full view of friends, foes and, of course, the media.

After swapping accusations of fraud in the UMP’s leadership election last year, the two have singularly failed to kiss and make up, as the party leaks support to the far-right Front National (FN).

That hasn’t reduced Copé’s appetite for FN-style hyperbole – warning that the integration study group’s report put the republic in danger, declaring that “the French are not racist” in response to Justice Minister Christiane Taubira being called a monkey while sniffing out “anti-white racism” in his hometown of Meaux, railing against any and all tax increases and jumping on the anti-gay marriage bandwagon.

Instead, it seems to have convinced Fillon that he must clear himself of any suspicion of moderation. In next year’s local council elections voters should pick the “less sectarian” candidate if faced with the choice between a Socialist and an FN candidate, he said in September.

Thanks in part to their public spat and subsequent behaviour, the UMP looks unlikely to reap much political benefit from the government’s discomfiture, leaving the FN hoping to make substantial gains in the municipal polls.

Nicolas Sarkozy, former president

Nicolas Sarkozy at the UMP political party headquarters in Paris, 8 July, 2013
Nicolas Sarkozy at the UMP political party headquarters in Paris, 8 July, 2013 Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

The Copé-Fillon show has given rise to a wave of Sarkzoystalgia in certain circles of the UMP.

The former chief has modestly shrugged off questions as to whether he will make a political comeback but not many people believe that this hyperactive publicity addict really wants to stay out of the limelight.

Dossier - The Bettencourt scandal

Except … it’s the lamps on public prosecutors’ desks that have been shining into the ex-president’s eyes these days.

Did he leave the home of billionaire Liliane Bettencourt with suitcases stuffed with cash? Did his right-hand man Claude Guéant butter up the L’Oréal heiress so as to finance Sarkozy’s election campaign on the quiet? Did Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi chip in with a few million?

These are some of the questions that investigators and journalists have asked and, even though charges in the L’Oréal affair have been dropped, that is unikely to be the end of Sarkozy’s legal worries.

At least he has his lovely wife, whose concerts he loyally attends, sometimes receiving an ovation from the crowd, which must be nice.

Marine Le Pen, far-right leader

Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen Reuters/Charles Platiau

The Front National (FN) leader, who inherited the family political business from papa in 2011, can’t really complain about a year that has seen her party rise in the polls and an increasing number of voters declaring that it is no longer beyond the pale.

But she does. According to Le Pen a bourgeois-bohemian Parisian elite has a stranglehold on the French media, bullying the good people of France with “political correctness”, daring to call her “extreme” and casting unreasonable doubts on her claim to have brought her party into the mainstream.

The FN expects to do well in next year’s council elections but it’s not going to be smooth sailing all the way.

Victim of the volatility of its support, the party has had problems finding enough candidates, leading at least one local leader to try and recruit them in the street.

And then that same local leader had to be dropped. A TV programme revealed that Anne-Sophie Leclere had compared Justice Minister Christiane Taubira to an ape on Facebook, joining a growing list of FN local officials guilty of such indiscretions as making Nazi salutes at parties, posting photos of Israeli flag in flames over the caption “This is France” and claiming that Algeria was lucky to have been colonised by France.

Worse still, another candidate, Nadia Portheault, resigned, apparently surprised to have found racists, Petainists, royalists and Nazis in the party.

After having her immunity as a member of the European parliament lifted, Le Pen herself faces legal action for comparing Muslims praying in a Paris street to the Nazi occupation of France.

Apart from her own father, who has judged her “bourgeois” and a bit out of touch with the people, Le Pen has faced embarrassment from her right, particularly after the killing of anti-fascist Clément Méric by a member of a group led by former skinhead and current far-right trouble-maker, Serge Ayoub.

Le Pen at first denied all knowledge of Ayoub’s mini-sect before being forced to admit that she had dined with him in 2010 and received his active support in the 2012 general election.

Manuel Valls, interior minister

French Interior Minister Manuel Valls
French Interior Minister Manuel Valls Reuters/Charles Platiau

Being the most popular minister in the government may be good for the ego but it doesn’t necessarily make you lots of friends in your own camp.

Valls, who is unashamedly on the right of the Socialist Party, has talked tough – or is that right-wing? – on immigration, security and the Roma.

That seems to have paid off in the opinion polls, giving him an approval rating of over 30 per cent – way ahead of any of his colleagues - but not in his party, where he is judged ruthlessly ambitious and believed to have his eyes on the prime minister’s job, if not the presidential candidacy in 2017.

His criticisms of Justice Minister Christiane Taubira’s plans for prison reform cast a pall over his relations with her, while his comments that most Roma don’t want to integrate into French society horrified the Socialists’ Green coalition partners, the EELV, not to mention anti-racist groups.

Christiane Taubira, justice minister

French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira
French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira Reuters/Charles Platiau

The Guianese-born justice minister was never popular in certain circles on the right, suspected of disloyalty to the nation because she started her political career in a separatist party or of indulging in identity politics because she backed a law that declared the slave trade a crime against humanity.

Then came the same-sex marriage bill, promised by François Hollande during his campaign to become president, but handed to Taubira to steer through parliament.

Even some of her opponents admired Taubira’s commitment to the bill and her very French eloquence - citing history, poets and philosophers - in defending it.

But the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets to oppose gay marriage weren’t impressed and, for many, she became a hate-figure all over again.

The cries of “Taubira resign!” were the nice part.

As the year progressed, the debate degenerated. A montage comparing her to an ape appeared on Facebook, a child offered her a banana during an anti-gay marriage protest, a far-right magazine found the “joke” so hilarious it put it on its cover and the Front National accused the Socialists of getting things out of proportion when they complained about it.

All of which must have been a bit distressing. But the 61-year-old minister has survived 35 years of rough-and-tumble French politics and knows that vilification by bigots has boosted her standing with the open-minded.

Frigide Barjot, anti-gay marriage activist

Frigide Barjot demonstrates against the gay marriage in Paris, 13 January, 2013
Frigide Barjot demonstrates against the gay marriage in Paris, 13 January, 2013 Reuters

The ebullient leader of the anti-gay marriage movement was riding high on a wave of manifs pour tous (demos for all) until it became clear that Catholic fundemantalist prayers were not to be answered and the measure would become law.

Virginie Tellenne - Frigide Barjot being a stage name from her days as a Christian comedian – had persuaded fuddy-duddy traditionalists to don puce sweatshirts and let their numerous children loose on social networks to great effect. Hundreds of thousands marched in Paris, young boys stripped off their shirts and labelled themselves Homen – a sort of masculine anti-Femen - the cameras clicked, Facebook and twitter buzzed and the troops thought they were heading for a “French spring” - a reactionary revolution against Socialist “dictatorship”.

Then came the summer holidays and the Homen repaired to their parents’ country houses, the protests fizzled out and, come the autumn session of parliament, the bill became law.

Barjot/Tellenne’s call for a civil union that would give gay couples more legal rights without actually being called marriage disgusted most of the leaders of the manif pour tous who purged her from the leadership, leaving her to launch her own micro-movement in a cellar in Paris’s swish Saint Germain des Prés neighbourhood.

On top of that the left-led Paris city council started proceedings to evict her from her municipal-owned 173-square-metre apartment – rent 2,850 euros per month - on the grounds that her husband, Bruno Tellenne, alias Basile de Koch, had used it as business premises.

Gérard Depardieu, actor

Gérard Depardieu shows his passport during a ceremony in Saransk in the Mordoviya Republic, southeast of Moscow, 6 January, 2013
Gérard Depardieu shows his passport during a ceremony in Saransk in the Mordoviya Republic, southeast of Moscow, 6 January, 2013 Reuters/Yulia Chestnova

The portly film star was clutched to Mother Russia’s bosom this year after sending his French passport back in a fit of temper over criticism of his reluctance to pay French taxes.

President Vladimir Putin signed a special decree granting citizenship to Jora Depardiev in January following a prolonged row over Depardieu’s decision to take up residence in Belgium because of the government’s declared but unrealised intention to tax earnings over a million euros at 75 per cent.

The warm welcome may have been influenced by Depardieu’s description of Putin’s Russia as a “great democracy” and by his friendship with Chechnya’s controversial ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov.

The Chechen president is not the actor’s only friend out east.

He has sung a duet with Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov’s daughter Gulnara, who is under investigation for money-laundering in France, and had the red carpet rolled out for him by Montenegro’s Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic in January.

In June Depardieu was finally fined in a much-postponed trial for drink-driving.

Not that he has been neglecting his professional engagements. He is the star of Abel Ferrara’s film Welcome to New York about the libertine former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a work whose explicit trailer has raised eyebrows across continents.

Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, candidate for mayor of Paris

Nathalie Kociusco-Morizet's photo session at a Paris canalside proved easy meat for parodists
Nathalie Kociusco-Morizet's photo session at a Paris canalside proved easy meat for parodists Twitter/@LeVraiconnard

The elegant former ecology minister’s bid to become the capital’s mayor has run into trouble first with the right-wing of her own party, then with certain sceptical members of the press and public, than with her own party again.

The UMP this year decided to get with it and hold a primary for its candidate for Paris mayor – a very modern move that inevitably - this is France, after all - gave plenty of scope for public bloodletting.

NKM, as she is usually known, ran into trouble with the party’s right-wing because, with a wise regard for the sensibilities of the capital’s voters, she abstained on the gay marriage bill.

That led UMP Young Turk Guillaume Peltier and the anti-gay marriage crusaders to oppose her and far-right magazine Minute to call on its readers to vote to keep her out.

They failed but that was just the beginning of Kosciusko-Morizet’s troubles.

Descendant of a long political dynasty that started with a great-grandfather who was a founder-member of the Communist Party but has become distinctly bourgeois since, Kosciusko-Morizet was mayor of the posh suburb of Longjumeau until she set her sights on the City of Light.

That led the impertinent to question how well acquainted with the problems of Parisian daily life she is. Does she know the price of a metro ticket, for example?

Madame failed that test in a radio interview last year and this year set out to reverse that PR setback by taking the train and speaking to Elle magazine about it.

Her assurance that the metro was a “place of charm” where she made some “incredible encounters” prompted hilarity on the part of the city’s habitually grumpy voyagers.

Other PR moves, such as being photographed posing demurely beside one of the city’s canals, prompted sneers and parodies on social media.

Unperturbed, Kosciusko-Morizet accused her Socialist rival, Anne Hidalgo, of living in a “magic world” without traffic jams and crime.

Parisians are continually “harassed” by bands of Roma, she claimed, saying that she would create neighbourhood police if elected, although experts insist that the mayor of Paris has no power to do so.

In her own camp, NKM faces a number of disgruntled councillors or would-be councillors who feel they have been squeezed out, including the legally challenged Tiberi family in the fifth arrondissement.

One of them promises to rally the malcontents and mount a rival slate of candidates.

One ray of winter sunshine was winning the support of Jean-Louis Borloo’s centre-right UDI … until the former finance minister accused her of breaking their agreement and pushing several of his party’s members down the municipal pecking order.

And then there were ...

Bonnets rouges, Breton protest movement

An employee of French firm Tilly-Sabco wears a red cap
An employee of French firm Tilly-Sabco wears a red cap Reuters/Stephane Mahe

Taking their name and their headgear from a 17th-century regional revolt against a stamp tax, thousands of inhabitants of France’s far west blocked roads and destroyed public property in protest at a tax on freight transport due to be implemented next year.

A promise of 50 per cent didn’t mollify them, nor did the fact that the measure received all-party support when it was decided under previous president Nicolas Sarkozy.

What could be more consensual than a green tax, designed to reduce carbon emissions and collect funds for rail transport, most MPs thought at the time.

But in Brittany it didn’t look that way.

The region has been hit by an avalanche of closures and job losses, partly due to the economic crisis, partly due to foreign competition undermining the intensive agriculture and food processing industry that played a major economic role there.

Enter the Bonnets rouges (red caps), an unnatural alliance of left-wingers and right-wingers, businesses and (some) unions, with Breton nationalists thrown into the mix, that claimed that the ecotax would drive small companies and farmers to the wall.

They marched, they rallied, they fought the riot police, they destroyed portals, worth millions of euros, set up to monitor taxable traffic.

So far, so French, as was the government’s reaction – postpone implementation of the tax and throw two billion euros at the Bretons, even if their region is far from being the most crisis-hit in France.

It wasn’t enough for the Bonnets rouges, who pointed out that not all the money was actually new and demanded the tax be completely scrapped at an estimated cost of 1.5 billion euros as the government struggles to reduce the deficit.


Butcher works behind a "no horsemeat" sign
Butcher works behind a "no horsemeat" sign Reuters/Darren Staples

One day you’re galloping in a paddock, the next you’re between two slices of deep-frozen lasagne on a supermarket shelf.

But at least the horses at the centre of the year’s most publicised food scandal got to travel in between, following a dodgy food chain from France to a food retail outlet near you via Cyprus, Romania and The Netherlands.

If the fuss about horsemeat being passed off as meat was as much about prejudice about what we eat as about accurate food labelling, the latest episode the eating equine saga is indisputably worrying – meat from animals used for experiments by laboratories may have ended up on our plates.

Rafale, fighter jet

A Dassault Rafale fighter aircraft
A Dassault Rafale fighter aircraft Reuters/Pascal Rossignol

It may be state-of-the-art but it’s awfully difficult to sell.

Brazil’s decision not to buy 36 Rafales from French aerospace giant Dassault – on the grounds that the fighter jet was too expensive and, anyway, it doesn’t really have any enemies - was the latest blow to France’s attempt to flog the hi-tech aircraft to emerging economies the world over.

The longest-running saga has been with India, which first started exclusive negotiations in January 2012.

But, with Delhi insisting that 90 of the 108 plane must be built at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Dassault was loath to accept responsibility for quality and punctuality at the state-owned plant.

Then the chief Indian negotiator died, leading Indian ministers to admit that agreement is unlikely before next year’s general election, whose result might mean a deal is never signed.

There are still hopes of a sale to Qatar, which is doing a lot of business with France these days.

But all the disappointments are bad news for the government which will now have to buy more of the damn things themselves to prevent job and profit losses, dealing another blow to hopes of balancing the budget.

The unemployed

A Pole Emploi (National Agency for Employment) office in Paris
A Pole Emploi (National Agency for Employment) office in Paris Reuters/Christian Hartmann

Despite a fall in the latest figures announced on Christmas Eve, it’s been grim year for the jobless in France.

Dossier: Eurozone in crisis

Unemployment hit a record high in April, then kept creeping up to 3,295,700 in September.

True, August’s figures showed a sudden drop. But that turned out to be a computer glitch that resulted in thousands of claimants having benefits they were perfectly entitled to cut off .

While the employed seem to be holding up in the crisis, with 2011 figures showing a rise of 0.2 per cent in salaries, the 10 per cent poorest French people saw incomes decline 3.6 per cent between 2008 and 2011, while the richest 10 per cent got 1.5 per cent richer.

Even the latest improvement is not good news for everyone.

Unemployment among over-50s was up 11.5 per cent over a year, while the number of people without work for a year or more hit a record two million.

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