Analysis: France

Hollande under pressure to make changes amid mounting social discontent

More and more are donning the bonnet rouge
More and more are donning the bonnet rouge Reuters/Stephane Mahe

The sight of protestors jeering at President François Hollande during the solemn Armistice Day Commemorations has stirred talk in France that the activities of various groups with different grievances are coalescing to form a more generalised revolt against the current government.

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The leaders of all the key political parties condemned yesterday’s disruption of a ceremony to honour France’s war dead.

A confused picture is emerging over who was involved yesterday but it seems that some were protestors from Brittany engaged in an angry campaign to have the controversial eco-tax scrapped and others were die-hard opponents of the new law allowing gay marriage and adoption in France.

The Bretons donned red hats as their campaign gathered momentum towards the end of October. The bonnet rouge headgear harks back to a famous 17th century Breton revolt.

But (somewhat to their annoyance) other groups with axes to grind are also now sporting the bonnets and it looks set to become a more general symbol of rebellion.

And unfortunately for François Hollande and his beleaguered Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, disgruntled citizens are queuing up to wear them.

According to figures released yesterday, François Hollande has now reached the lowest popularity rating for a French president since such opinion polls began - only 21 per cent of those polled have a favourable view of him. (Ipsos - Le Point)

The mood in France is grim. The governing Socialists seem to stagger from disaster to disaster, their environmentalist junior coalition partners appear to have sold their souls and wreaked havoc, Sarkozy’s opposition UMP is bitterly divided. Only Marine Le Pen’s National Front is riding high.

In municipal elections scheduled for March, the Front National is expected to make gains and many predict it will do still better in the May European elections.

What is going on?

The list of issues which have led to major difficulties for Hollande and his government is long.

The first year was extremely bumpy and the last six months have been no easier: There have been bubbling threats of a boycott of certain taxes, a riot at football celebration in central Paris, a petition in favour of a Jeweller prosecuted for shooting a burglar, a riot over a burka, a government split over comments about Roms, eco-tax toll gates smashed up and an extraordinary crisis over the expulsion of a 15 year old Roma girl from Kosovo.

As elsewhere in Europe, parties at the extremes of the political spectrum in France are prospering amid economic difficulties and frustration with the solutions offered by the traditional mainstream parties.

Although Hollande was democratically elected 18 months ago, many voters on the French right have difficulty accepting the result.

In internet comments they frequently declare that Hollande was given an easy ride in 2012 by a Paris-based left-wing dominated media class which disliked Nicolas Sarkozy.

It’s true that in the first round of the election, the combined vote on the right was greater than the combined vote on the left, and the free and fair election of Socialist François Hollande in some ways did not wholly reflect the more right wing mood of the nation.

This mismatch has led to growing polarisation in French society and the emergence of what some analysts are calling a Tea Party-style movement on the right.

The bitter struggle to try to block a gay marriage law spawned a number of single issue groups.

Meanwhile the police are trying to keep on top of a number of illegal extreme right-wing groups and proscribed far-left outfits who are also becoming more active.

Their own worst enemies?

There are a lot of irate people out there but the government itself is riven with huge unresolved political differences and poisonous personal jealousies.

Despite being in opposition for years, unlike for example, Britain’s Labour Party in the 1990s, the French Socialist Party did not use that time to thrash out its internal political differences.

As a result, the Prime Minister and various ministers appointed by François Hollande spend much of their time apparently trying to sabotage each other.

The government also includes a handful of Green ministers, who rarely miss an opportunity to embarrass Hollande:

Former Green Party leader, now Housing minister, Cécile Duflot, recently openly suggested her government colleague Manuel Valls was a racist.

Hollande seems unable to control the disparate bunch and now has an image as a president who is indecisive and lacking in authority.

What now?

François Hollande has a mandate for five years and intends to weather the storms.

Marine Le Pen has called several times for the dissolution of Parliament. This would probably result in gains for the Front National. Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP does not want a dissolution. The party is not ready for government, still scarred from last November’s bitter leadership battle and paralysed by a failure to evaluate Sarkozy’s legacy.

Some want Hollande to sack Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and change political direction. Today a Socialist MP, Malek Bouteh openly called for this. This would be difficult for Hollande as he is trying to steer a path between undeclared social democrats within his government, a significant group of more left-wing socialists and the Green coalition partners.

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