Hollande’s presidency (2012-2017)

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François Hollande’s fall and collapse (2012-2017)

President François Hollande left office as the most unpopular president of the Fifth Republic. His massive unpopularity forced him to take the unprecedented decision to not seek reelection to a second term.

Hollande, by his own admission, underestimated the seriousness of France’s economic outlook. In 2012, candidate Hollande forecast 2% growth in 2014 and 2.25% growth in 2015-2017; this was later revised to 2% growth after 2015 (in April 2013), then to 2.25% growth after 2016 (in April 2014), then to only 1.9% growth in 2017 (in October 2014) and then to 1.5% growth after 2016. Growth was sluggish for the entirety of Hollande’s presidency – 0.2% in 2012, 0.6% in 2013 and 2014, 1.3% in 2015 and 1.1% in 2016.

Hollande had imprudently promised during the 2012 campaign to reduce the deficit to 3% of GDP (Maastricht criteria) in 2013 and balance the budget by 2017. This promise was based on overly optimistic growth forecasts and was abandoned as early as February 2013, with the 3% objective pushed back to 2015 by the European Commission (EC) and the government. The deficit in 2013 was ultimately 4.3% of GDP. The new 2015 objective quickly became unreachable, and France obtained another delay from the EC – till 2017. The deficit shrank to 3.5% of GDP in 2015, 3.3% of GDP in 2016 and the government’s budget estimates (from fall 2016) projected a 2.7% deficit in 2017, finally meeting Maastricht criteria (but four years behind schedule) although the high council on public finances has already raised questions about these numbers. The EC projects a 2.9% deficit in 2017 and a 3.1% deficit in 2018.

In their quest to cut the deficit, the government cut spending and increased taxes on households and businesses. Whereas the right had mostly focused on spending cuts, the Ayrault government initially relied on tax increases. The new government kept income tax brackets frozen (i.e. not inflation-adjusted) until 2014, which had the effect of pushing households into a higher tax bracket. A new top marginal tax rate of 45% was created for incomes over €150,000, as promised by Hollande in the campaign. The government overturned the right’s 2011 simplification and reduction of the wealth tax (ISF), netting significant new revenues for the state, but a ‘tax ceiling’ of 75% is reported to cost the state over €1 billion annually – more than the costs of Sarkozy’s infamous ‘tax shield’. Despite scrapping some tax loopholes (limited to €10,000/year) and benefits, the cost of tax loopholes and other such benefits grew over the course of Hollande’s presidency. In 2014, the government increased the VAT’s standard rate from 19.6% to 20%, the intermediate rate from 7% to 10% and maintained the reduced rate at 5.5% (despite previously promising to bring it down to 5%).

However, Hollande’s cornerstone 75% tax, widely criticized as ‘anti-rich demagoguery’ which would favour tax exile (boosted by high-profile cases like actor Gérard Depardieu, who became a Russian national in 2013 or businessman Bernard Arnault), slowly melted away. An exceptional two-year watered-down ‘contribution’ of 75% on incomes over €1 million, targeting about 1,500 taxpayers, was passed into law in December 2012, but it was struck down by the Constitutional Council. It was readopted as a two-year 50% tax to be paid by companies which pay salaries over €1 million.

Wealthiest taxpayers shouldered most of the tax increases, but middle classes suffered in the early years of the government, notably with the freeze in tax brackets – breaking a pledge that ‘9 out of 10’ households would be saved from fiscal ‘efforts’ (political euphemism for austerity). Lower income households benefited, from 2012, from a tax discount, which was substantially increased and expanded to couples in 2015 and 2016.

The government became aware that the tax increases were extremely unpopular and leading to a widespread ras-le-bol fiscal (‘fed up of taxes’) in the country. Between May 2012 and May 2013, Hollande’s approval rating collapsed from 61% to 29% (Ifop), the fastest decline in popularity for a French president. By the end of 2013, Hollande’s popularity was barely 20% – and Ayrault was just as unpopular. Cognizant of the discontent over taxes, the government haphazardly announced that there would be no further ‘fiscal effort’ after 2013, but this promise was broken when taxes were increased for 2014. Running around like headless chickens, ministers contradictorily talked of a ‘pause’ or ‘quasi-stability’ in 2014, but new taxes were introduced for 2015.

A ‘heavy goods vehicle tax’ or ‘ecotax‘, a tax to be paid by heavy good vehicles circulating on publicly-financed roads (adopted in 2009 and due to come into force in 2014), sparked major protests in western Brittany in October 2013, the mouvement des Bonnets rouges (the name referenced a 1675 anti-tax revolt in Brittany – an historical event which is highly important in left-wing Breton nationalist/regionalist mythology.). The disparate, cross-class movement drew together businessmen, farmers, employers and workers, primarily from the region’s strong agribusiness sector which feared that the ‘ecotax’ would cripple their industry, though it quickly evolved into a wider protest movement against economic hardships and (to a lesser extent) around regional identity issues. The movement, supported by local politicians like Carhaix mayor Christian Troadec, had clear regionalist undertones which displeased certain national-level politicians in their Jacobin mindset.

Unemployment was about 9.7% (2.9 million) when Hollande took office in May 2012, with a famous promise to ‘reverse the curve’ (inverser la courbe) by fall 2013. Unemployment rose to 10.4% in 2013-Q2 and fell to 10.1% in 2013-Q4 according to Insee numbers, but the number of registered jobseekers continuously rose without many interruptions to an all-time high of 3.578 million in February 2016 (5.46 million including jobseekers with other employment). Therefore, after the government’s newspeak and waffling (talking of ‘stabilization’), only since early 2016 has there been a clear, consistent decline in unemployment – 3.46 million full-time unemployed in February 2017 (5.515 with the expanded definition). Hollande himself recognized the importance of the issue in April 2014, when he said that there would be no reason for him to seek reelection if unemployment did not drop by 2017.

The main jobs promises of Hollande’s 2012 campaign – 150,000 emplois d’avenir (for underprivileged youth 16-25) and the contrats de générations (payroll tax reductions to SMEs who hire a young person while keeping a senior in employment) – were kept but they had only negligible effects on unemployment. With unemployment rising and businesses grumpy because of new taxes, the government received a report on the competitiveness of the French economy prepared by former EADS CEO Louis Gallois. Its diagnosis confirmed the accelerated decline of industry and made several recommendations including a ‘competitiveness shock’. The report was roundly criticized by the radical left and the FN as ‘liberal garbage’, but the government welcomed and adopted the vast majority of its recommendations. Chief among them was the creation of the ‘tax credit for competitiveness and employment‘ (CICE), a tax credit to businesses equivalent to 7% (4% in 2013, 6% in 2014-2016) of payroll earning up to 2.5 times the minimum wage (SMIC) to reduce labour costs and invest, hire or conquer new markets. The impact of the CICE is unclear: it may have ‘saved’ 50,000-100,000 jobs (but far from early promises of creating 300,000), slowed the increase in labour costs but it has had little effect on investments or wages. In addition, since 2013, the government’s ‘competitiveness shock‘ has reduced France’s notoriously heavy bureaucratic red tape and onerous regulations or procedures on businesses and individuals, notably through new online portals to more easily access government services.

The PS in opposition had pounded on the right’s 2010 pension reform and candidate Hollande promised a partial return to the legal retirement age of 60 for workers who began their career young (20 or young) and contributed the required number of quarters and to hold dialogues on a wider pension reform. The first promise was adopted upon taking office, paid for by increased contributions. The pension reform, adopted in December 2013, raised contribution rates for employees and employers by 0.3% each by 2017 and the number of required contribution years for full benefits will rise gradually from 41.5 to 43 between 2020 and 2035. The reform was opposed by both the right and the radical left, for very different reasons. However, the reform elicited far less hostile reaction from the general public and organized labour than the 2010 reform had.

The government did very poorly in its first nationwide electoral test – the municipal elections in March 2014. The extent of the left’s rout in the local elections took the government by surprise, not expecting such a clear-cut defeat given that municipal elections in France are usually decided on local rather than national considerations. Following the elections, the right controls over three-fifths of municipalities with over 30,000 inhabitants, whereas prior to the elections the left controlled about 58%. The right-wing Union for a Popular Movement (Union pour un mouvement populaire, UMP) and its allies like the centre-right Union of Democrats and Independents (Union des démocrates et indépendants, UDI) – gained hundreds of municipalities from the left, while only a tiny handful switched the other way (most notable PS gain was Avignon). The PS’ defeat was only mitigated, partially, by its victories in Paris and Lyon, two emblematic cities which the PS had conquered from the right in 2001. The FN also performed well, with the far-right winning 13 municipalities across France including two with a population over 30,000 – Béziers (with Robert Ménard, an independent close to the FN) and Fréjus, and one very symbolic first round victory in Hénin-Beaumont in the Pas-de-Calais’ mining basin, the political base of Marine Le Pen since 2007.

As a mechanical result of the municipal elections, the left lost its hard-won and historic Senate majority in the September 2014 indirect senatorial elections. The Socialist left had won its first ever Senate majority in 2011, but because over 94% of senatorial electors are delegates of the communes, the left’s defeat in the municipal elections meant that it would most likely lose its Senate majority. The right won 64% of the seats up for reelection in 2014, giving it an absolute majority of 188 seats (out of 348) against 151 for the left (communists, socialists, greens and radicals). The FN elected its first ever senators (2) thanks to its municipal victories in the Var and Bouches-du-Rhône.

The 2014 municipal elections forced Hollande’s hand and he dismissed Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, replacing him with Manuel Valls. The prime minister had become just as massively unpopular as the president. Ayrault was the weak, indecisive and effaced head of a cacophonous, incoherent and disorderly government. Ayrault’s authority as prime minister was repeatedly undermined by his own cabinet ministers, who contradicted one another or actively plotted against one another. Arnaud Montebourg, the industry minister from the PS’ left, acted as a free agent on the difficult issue of the ArcelorMittal steelworks in Florange (Moselle), reportedly told Ayrault that he was “pissing off the entire earth” (tu fais chier la terre entière) with the Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport (controversial new airport project near Nantes) and strategically allied with interior minister Manuel Valls against Ayrault.

Valls, in a way not unlike Sarkozy under Chirac’s second term, became a popular interior minister (including with right-wingers) because of his hardline policies on criminality and immigration. Valls effectively continued Sarkozy’s immigration policies – deportation of undocumented migrants and expulsion of Roma migrants (which doubled in 2012-2013), although he also showed a firm ‘republican’ stance against far-right extremist groups and anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné. In 2014, he was one of the most popular politicians in the country. His immigration policies created several controversies on the left, but because public opinion in France is heavily in favour of very tough policies on immigration and refugees, none of them hurt his popularity (although they did add to the radical left’s list of issues with Valls). In 2013, Valls said that it was ‘impossible’ to integrate the Roma population into French society (because of “different lifestyles”) and that the only solution was to dismantle the camps and return occupants to their country of origin. A few months prior, he had said that the Roma were intended to stay in Romania or return there. His comments at the time divided the government, leading to a row between Valls and housing minister Cécile Duflot of the Greens (EELV).

An incident in October 2013 showcased Hollande’s indecision and remarkable ability to please no one and displease everyone. Leonarda Dibrani, a 15-year old undocumented immigrant from Kosovo attending a French school, was arrested during a school field trip and deported to Kosovo. Valls’ behaviour as responsible minister once again raised debate and criticism on the left. Hollande was forced to intervene, and he haplessly proposed a compromise: while supporting the decision, he proposed that Leonarda be allowed to return, alone, to complete her studies (she refused). On the left, the decision was criticized (even PS leader Harlem Désir signaled his disapproval) on humanitarian grounds. The right attacked Hollande’s “indecision”, denouncing a terrible blow to state authority and Marine Le Pen even called on him to resign for humiliating France. The affair showed how complicated the issue of immigration is for the PS: torn between the wider electorate’s growing opposition to immigration (including from a good part of the PS’ own traditional electorate) and the party’s traditional left-wing allies in civil society supportive of immigrants’ and refugees’ rights. It is an issue which the party can’t win: its policies on immigration will invariably be criticized by the right and far-right as being ‘soft’ while voters who rank immigration as one of their most important issues disproportionately vote for the FN.

Valls’ nomination to Matignon was met with some unease on the left (including within the PS) because of Valls’ reputation as an iconoclast challenging Socialist orthodoxy on things like the 35-hour workweek. In 2011, Valls, his ‘right-wing’ stance isolated him within the party and he won only 5.6% of the vote in the primary, although ironically much of what he proposed at the time would later become government policy under Hollande. In shaping his first government, Valls promoted two ministers associated with the PS left, but who had helped him accede to the prime ministership in a marriage of convenience: Arnaud Montebourg and Benoît Hamon, who were promoted to minister of the economy and education minister respectively. Ségolène Royal saw her thinly-veiled lobbying for a gig rewarded with the environment portfolio. The PS’ junior ally, Europe Écologie-Les Verts (EELV), which had two ministers in Ayrault’s government (including former party boss Cécile Duflot, who was a very poor housing minister), refused to participate in the government although days later 10 of the party’s 17 deputies voted in favour of the government on the initial vote of confidence in the National Assembly.

Replacing the like-minded Ayrault with the ambitious Valls, Hollande may have been seeking to divest himself of some domestic political responsibilities and lay low for a while. Hollande doesn’t have the political smarts of the Machiavellian genius François Mitterrand, who appointed his political rivals (i.e. Michel Rocard) to Matignon in order to ruin their careers, although Valls’ popularity inevitably declined rapidly after becoming Prime Minister – from 58% to 36% between April and August 2014. Nevertheless, Valls remained significantly more popular than Hollande (18% approval in April 2014, 13% in September and November 2014), indicating that a good part of Hollande’s popularity was an intense, deep-set dislike of the person rather than the policies associated with his governments.

To many, Valls’ appointment marked the beginning of Hollande’s more resolute and overt ‘liberal shift’, although it predated Valls: the Gallois report, the CICE etc. In December 2013, Hollande had announced a pacte de responsabilité with employers, proposing to reduce non-wage labour costs (social security contributions, payroll taxes) paid by employers in return for job creations. Valls recycled this promise, which was to become one of the cornerstone economic policies of the later half of Hollande’s presidency, in his government’s inaugural policy speech to the National Assembly in April 2014. Cuts to employers’ non-wage labour costs were later quantified at €41 billion by 2017, specifically by removing contributions on minimum wage jobs, reducing contributions paid out on salaries up to 3.5 times the minimum wage and cutting the corporate tax rate to 28% by 2020 (from 33.5%). France has the highest social security contributions in the OECD at 16.9% of GDP in 2015, compared to an OECD average of 9.1%. Like the CICE, the pacte de responsabilité‘s effects are hard to evaluate. Employers’ associations like the Medef had refused from the beginning to commit on any quantifiable job creation numbers, and its results on job creation have since been judged ‘insufficient’. Like the CICE, however, it may have ‘saved’ jobs, slowed the increase in labour costs, somewhat increased economic competitiveness and increased companies’ profit margins.

These measures were to be paid for by €50 billion in ‘savings’ (i.e. spending cuts) – from the state budget, local governments, health insurance and other social benefits. These ‘savings’ included a freeze in social benefits including pensions, a deferment in the increase of several welfare benefits (including the RSA) and a continued freeze of the ‘indexation point’ (used to calculate civil servants’ wages) until 2017 (the indexation point has not increased since 2010). The latter meant that, with inflation and no concomitant increase in the base for calculating public sector pay, civil servants would not only suffer a pay freeze but a net loss in salary. The €50 million savings plan, effectively an austerity program in all but name, was controversial and unpopular with the PS’ left, which had already been suspicious of Valls’ intentions (11 PS deputies had already abstained on his government’s confidence vote). The savings plan was adopted by the National Assembly in April 2014 by 265 votes to 232 and 67 abstentions – no less than 41 deputies of the Socialist group (SRC), the bulk of them from the PS’ left, abstained.

Realizing the unpopularity of the tax increases and the country’s ras-le-bol fiscal (‘fed up of taxes’), Valls promised that lower-income households would receive income tax cuts or be exempted from paying income taxes altogether. The summer 2014 budget update reduced income taxes on 3.7 million low-income households and allowed another 1.9 million households to stop paying income taxes altogether. In 2015, the lowest tax bracket (5.5%) was removed, so that only households with incomes over €9,700 paid income tax on 2014 incomes rather than households with incomes over €6,000 in the previous fiscal year. The government said that 9.5 million households benefited from this tax cut. The 2017 budget included a 20% tax cut under certain conditions. Beginning in 2018, France will move to a withholding tax system – it was one of the few countries without such a system in place. Between 2014 and 2016, the government says that 12 million households benefited from tax cuts. The number of households paying income taxes decreased from 19.2 million (2013) to 17.08 million (2015). The tax burden has slowly decreased since 2016, although it remains marginally higher than it was in 2012.

The emergence of a large group of frondeurs (rebels) within the governing party’s ranks was one of the main political phenomenons of the Hollande presidency. Sarkozy’s policies ruffled some feathers within his party and broader presidential majority, but there was never a major and sustained group of UMP parliamentarians opposing the government’s policies and the centre-right allies of the UMP (what became the UDI) remained too weak and dependent on the UMP’s goodwill to ever constitute a serious threat to the UMP. Within the PS, a substantial group of deputies identified with the various factions of the party’s left or, more commonly, a large contingent of aubryste deputies (supporters of Lille mayor Martine Aubry, who never joined the cabinet and became a cautious though sometimes vocal critic of the government’s unpopular decisions), opposed what they judged to be the overly liberal policies of the government. The first rebellion within party ranks came over the ratification of the European Fiscal Compact in October 2012. Hollande had promised to renegotiate the treaty, but once elected he settled for a supplemental ‘jobs and growth pact’ add-on. Although it was duly ratified by the National Assembly and Senate, 477 to 70 in the former, 20 PS deputies voted against and 9 abstained (12 EELV deputies also voted against).

The PS suffered a defeat of monumental proportions in the EU elections in May 2014. Marine Le Pen’s FN topped the poll with a record 24.9% of the vote and elected 24 MEPs. The PS placed a distant third with only 14%, falling below its two previous EP election disasters (2009 and 1994); EELV and the FG, who won 9% and 6.6% respectively, also did poorly. The mainstream right UMP won 20.8%, a poor showing for the largest opposition party to an unpopular government (granted, a separate centrist/centre-right alliance between the UDI and François Bayrou’s MoDem took 9.9%).

After Sarkozy’s defeat in 2012, the UMP nearly tore itself apart following the party’s November 2012 leadership election, which opposed former Prime Minister François Fillon to party secretary-general Jean-François Copé. Both claimed victory in an election marred by fraud and vote rigging (on both sides), though official results gave Copé a 98 vote victory. The crisis was resolved by the stopgap creation of an unwieldy, top-heavy leadership structure balanced between the two factions.

Copé suffered from an acute image problem, perceived as too right-wing, economically liberal, double-faced, insincere, morally bankrupt and a shamelessly corrupt opportunist. His leadership was no better. The UMP was desperate to oppose the government at every turn, in the process latching on to the most ridiculous of ‘controversies’ and non-issues – for example, Copé once complained about how a children’s book on nudity was destroying the youth. A whirlwind of old and new scandals hit the party in 2014, implicating Sarkozy, Copé and other prominent party leaders. Among these scandals, an events organization firm (Bygmalion) owned by two of Copé’s friends received millions of euros from the party to supposedly organize campaign events in 2012, many of which never even took place. Initially it was believed that the UMP had been overcharged by Bygmalion, but the UMP was later accused of being the one forcing Bygmalion to issue false invoices addressed to the party rather than the Sarkozy campaign to circumvent campaign finance limits. Sarkozy’s campaign accounts had already been rejected by the campaign finance commission in December 2012, for spending over the legal limit through other machinations, but Bygmalion suggested that Sarkozy may have spent up to €45.9 million (the limit was €22.509 million in the runoff). The scandal forced Copé to resign shortly after the EP elections, precipitating a new leadership election in the fall of 2014.

In August 2014, Arnaud Montebourg and Benoît Hamon publicly criticized the government’s economic policy and ‘forced deficit reduction’ in the Eurozone, comments which Valls and Hollande judged to have crossed the line. Montebourg, Hamon and like-minded culture minister Aurélie Filippetti (who later dated Montebourg) were fired and Valls formed a new government. Symbolically, Montebourg was replaced as minister of the economy by Emmanuel Macron, an unknown former investment banker at Rothschild who had served as deputy secretary general to the president since 2012. Macron’s appointment confirmed the government’s ‘liberal shift’. 31 PS deputies abstained from the confidence vote on the second Valls government in September 2014. 39 abstained from the vote on the 2015 budget, including Hamon and Filippetti.

Macron attached his name to the so-called ‘Macron law‘, promulgated in August 2015, which aims to “unlock” the French economy through several ‘business-friendly’ measures to liberalize and deregulate certain sectors of the economy. The law liberalized rules on Sunday shopping (allowed up to 12, rather than 5, Sundays a year with compensation on the mayor’s decision), significantly deregulated intercity/inter-regional bus transportation (hitherto allowed only as cabotage on international routes), facilitated access to drivers’ licenses, increased competition between supermarkets where one company has an excessive market share, simplified procedures in labour courts to reduce delays and improved coverage of 3G mobile telephony and wireless internet. The law also deregulated certain regulated occupations, especially legal ones (notaries, bailiffs, clerks, registrars etc.) where France’s regulation has been judged to be excessive and singled out for criticism from the EU. The law allows people with the qualifications and experience required to practice their trade anywhere, while the prices to be charged by legal professionals are now regulated – resulting in lower prices for individuals seeking to access those services. Government reports prior to the law had highlighted the very high net profits in certain regulated occupations’ turnovers while other studies had shown that the public was dissatisfied with the services rendered by lawyers charging high fees. The government extensively publicized the law’s deregulation of inter-regional/intercity bus services, which broke the state railway company (SNCF)’s monopoly on long-distance transportation, opened a very undeveloped market (only 110k passengers in 2013) and expanded options for long-distance transportation at far lower costs (but longer trips). Certain initial ideas were dropped or watered down, for example pharmacists retained their monopoly on the sale of non-prescription drugs.

Nevertheless, the law was very controversial: the frondeurs and the left-wing opposition claimed that the law would weaken employment protections and attack traditions such as Sunday rest, while some on the right saw it as too little. The deregulation of certain professions (notaries) also upset those conservative-leaning professionals. Facing the threat of a revolt from the frondeurs and uncertain that it had the numbers to pass the bill, the government invoked article 49.3 of the constitution on three occasions to ensure passage of the bill in the National Assembly. Under the controversial article 49.3 of the constitution, a bill is considered adopted without a vote unless a motion of no confidence is adopted. In other words, it allows a government to force adoption of a text when the lower house is reticent by daring deputies to overthrow it – for a motion of no confidence, only votes in favour are counted and an absolute majority of members is required for passage. No motion of no confidence which resulted from the use of article 49.3 has ever been successful (the only successful motion of no confidence, under the normal procedure of article 49.2 was against the Pompidou government in 1962).

If the government proved disappointingly right-wing for many left-wingers on economic issues, its left-wing credentials were better on moral issues. As promised by Hollande in 2012, same-sex marriage and adoption were legalized by the ‘Taubira law’ adopted in May 2013. The issue was deeply divisive – all major religions in France, led by the Catholic Church, opposed same-sex marriage and only 16 UMP and UDI deputies voted in favour or abstained on the final vote on the law in the National Assembly in May 2013 (208 voted against). In contrast, only 15 left-wing deputies voted against or abstained from the final vote while 320 voted in favour. The right’s opposition at times bordered on the hysterical, with absurd and distasteful comparisons drawn to bestiality and terrorism. The strength of public opposition to same-sex marriage and adoption surprised foreign commentators. Socially conservative social movements like the Manif pour tous, as well as more extremist groups, organized massive demonstrations against the law between November 2012 and May 2013, supported and attended by many right-wing and far-right politicians including Jean-François Copé. In January 2013, they rallied 340,000-1 million people in Paris, and replicated those numbers again in March 2013.  Public opinion supported same-sex marriage (about 60-65% in favour) but was far more divided over same-sex adoption. To avoid even greater controversy, the government quickly shut the door to legalizing surrogacy or expanding ARTs to lesbian couples, even if Hollande had supported the latter during the election.

A law on gender equality was also passed in 2014, with several policies including extension of parental leave to the second parent, expanding and guaranteeing access to abortion, measures to support pay equity, public guarantees against unpaid support payments, more effective tools to fight gender violence, extension of gender parity requirements and fighting sexist stereotypes.

Christiane Taubira, the justice minister and one of the more consistently left-wing members of the government (until she resigned in January 2016), also gave her name to criminal justice reform, adopted in August 2014. The law, aimed at reducing prison overcrowding and ‘individualizing’ punishments, repealed mandatory sentences (introduced under Sarkozy in 2007) and introduced a probation-like ‘penal constraint’ for minor offences. The right criticized the laxness of the law. It also revealed the rifts within the government: Valls, then interior minister, opposed certain aspects of the law and successfully reduced the applicability of the ‘penal constraint’ to offenses punishable by up to 5 years’ imprisonment (since 2017, it is for all offences).

Terrorism has hit France repeatedly since 2015, beginning with the January 7, 2015 jihadist attack on the Parisian offices of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo which killed 12 people including several famous and acclaimed cartoonists. The newspaper was famous and controversial for its satirical criticism of Islamism, Islamic religious fundamentalism but also religious fundamentalism writ large, Catholicism, racism and the far-right. The following day, a municipal policewoman was killed in suburban Montrouge by a terrorist gunman who then took hostages at a kosher mini-mart in Paris. The police tracked down and killed the two brothers responsible for the attacks on Charlie Hebdo following a firefight in Seine-et-Marne, while other elite police units stormed the kosher mini-mart, freeing hostages – although four hostages had been killed by the terrorist. The attacks were followed by a spectacular outpouring of grief, solidarity and support for freedom of expression in France and around the world (Je suis Charlie). Massive ‘republican marches’ across France on January 10-11 gathered millions of people. The Parisian march on January 11 was attended by several world leaders, religious leaders and politicians from all major parties except the FN and the far-left. Hollande and Valls’ popularity temporarily but significantly rebounded in the wake of ‘national unity’ post-Charlie Hebdo: in Ifop, Hollande’s approvals increased from 17% to 29% while Valls’ popularity increased from 35% to 53%. Other pollsters, like Ipsos, reported larger bumps for Hollande – up to 38%. These bumps did not last: Hollande fell back to mere 20% approvals in the spring and summer.

There were ‘smaller’ terrorist incidents in the spring and summer of 2015, including the beheading of a business owner and gas explosion in Isère (June), an attack on a Thalys train from Amsterdam where the assailant was tackled by three US Marines (August). On November 13, a series of coordinated ISIS terrorist attacks in Saint-Denis and Paris – a suicide bombing outside the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, several mass shootings and suicide attacks at cafés and restaurants, and a mass shooting at a concert at the Bataclan theatre. 130 people were killed in the deadliest attack in France since World War II. The government immediately decreed a state of emergency.

The state of emergency in France is governed by a 1955 law and is initially decreed by the President and government and renewed beyond twelve days by Parliament. Under a state of emergency, authorities have the power to decree ceasefires, restrict freedom of movement, dissolve associations or groups interfering with public order, proceed to search and seizures, place suspects (‘any person whose behaviour constitutes a threat to public security and order’) under house arrest for up to 12 months, temporarily close meeting places and ban demonstrations. Before November 2015, states of emergency had been decreed during the Algerian war (1955, 1958, 1961-1962), in New Caledonia during ‘the events’ (1985) and during the riots in the banlieues in 2005. The state of emergency decreed in 2015 was the first applicable to the entire territory of metropolitan France since the Algerian war. The state of emergency has since been renewed by Parliament five times, most recently in December 2016 until July 15, 2017. There was a broad consensus between the mainstream left and right about the state of emergency and other anti-terrorism measures, although there have been rebels from both the PS (some of the most radical frondeurs) and mainstream right. Most criticism has come from civil society, NGOs, intellectuals and the left-wing opposition (anti-government greens, communists, radical left, far-left), denouncing restrictions on civil liberties and the use of extraordinary powers to restrict protests unrelated to terrorism (e.g. environmentalists). The last renewal of the state of emergency, last December, passed 288-32 in the National Assembly and 306-28 in the Senate.


Evaluation of terrorist threat in France since 2001 (source: Ifop)

Terrorist attacks in France continued in 2016 – the murder of a police officer and his wife by an ISIS terrorist at their home in the Yvelines (June), the July 14, 2016 truck attack on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice (86 dead) and the attack on a church in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray (Normandy) killing one priest. In February 2017, an Egyptian terrorist with two machetes attacked soldiers at the Louvre, injuring one before being killed; in March, another terrorist shot at police in Stains and tried to seize a patrolling soldier’s gun at Orly airport before being killed. On April 20, three days before the first round of the presidential election, a police officer was killed (and two others wounded) by a jihadist assailant on the Champs-Élysées. Since 2015, French authorities have foiled several major terrorist plots, including an attempt to bomb Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris in September 2016 and a plot against a presidential candidate in March 2017. In the most recent poll, following the attack on the Champs-Élysées, 95% said that the terrorist threat was high – 51% said it was ‘very high’. Terrorism has become a key issue on voters’ minds – and, since 2015, the government has responded by passing new, tougher counter-terrorism legislation which it claims make it easier for intelligence agencies and law enforcement to prevent terrorist attacks and dismantle homegrown ‘radicalized Islamist’ terrorist cells.

A first anti-terrorism law was passed in 2014, before the Charlie Hebdo attacks. To prevent young French nationals from going to Syria to receive training or get into contact with terrorist networks overseas, the law allows authorities to ban individuals from leaving France and confiscate their passports. It expanded criminal code provisions used to prosecute terrorism to include ‘lone wolves’. Authorities may also demand ISPs to block access to sites promoting or justifying terrorism. A new anti-terrorism law was passed in 2016 notably expands the scope for identity checks and baggage searches during ‘terrorist threats’ and allows for the administrative detention of persons for up to 4 hours. In response to terrorism and other threats and challenges, military and security spending has increased, over 9,000 new police officers and gendarmes were recruited (National Police and Gendarmerie) and over 2,600 jobs were created in key ministries and agencies (interior, justice, defence, customs). The big military and security spending increases decreed after the 2015 terrorist attacks broke the €50 billion ‘savings’ (cuts) policy, with Hollande declaring that the ‘security pact’ overrode the ‘stability pact’ (i.e. deficit reduction).

In June 2015, a controversial new intelligence law was adopted. The law provides an updated framework for intelligence activities – the previous law was outdated (1991) – ostensibly guarantees civil liberties and privacy. It gives intelligence agencies more powers and tools (geotagging, wiretaps, access to metadata, IMSI catchers) to monitor suspects. For the sole purpose of fighting terrorism, intelligence services are allowed to install scanning devices (‘black boxes’) on the infrastructure of telecom operators and ISPs to collect and monitor connection data in real time, filtered through an algorithm to detect terrorist threats. Opponents, which included the data privacy and civil liberties regulator (CNIL) and several advocacy groups, claimed the law creates “mass surveillance”. In the first reading of the bill in the National Assembly, it passed 438 to 86 with 42 abstentions – 10 PS and 35 UMP deputies voted against (as did 11 UDI deputies, 11 Greens and 12 Communists/radical left deputies).

Following the November 2015 terrorist attacks, Hollande proposed a constitutional amendment to constitutionalize the state of emergency (much like the state of siege and extraordinary presidential powers are in the constitution) and to allow the loss of citizenship for French-born dual citizens convicted of ‘serious crimes against the life of the nation’. The civil code currently allows for the denaturalization of naturalized French citizens convicted of such crimes.

The constitutionalization of the state of emergency was criticized by some as useless (as the current law is constitutional) but not overly criticized. The abstract idea of ‘strip terrorists of their nationality’ was approved by massive majorities according to polls (70-90%), but translating that idea into constitutional terms which were in line with France’s international and European obligations was more difficult. The idea also deeply divided the left and the PS, and, by several indications, even the government (Taubira resigned as justice minister in January 2016, tweeting that ‘sometimes resisting is leaving; Macron also opposed the idea). Others on the left felt that the government’s idea went against left-wing values (and, according to some lawyers and deputies, went against the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen) and was dangerously close to the FN’s longstanding proposals.

There was speculation that the government would not even present its constitutional amendment on the loss of citizenship, as Taubira had announced to an Algerian radio station. It did. But, in an attempt to assuage the concerns of PS deputies that the amendment would single out dual citizens and stigmatize them, the government proposed and the National Assembly adopted a different wording without references to dual citizens (although that was still implied, because a French citizen without another citizenship would not be rendered stateless). The new wording was only adopted 162-148 by the National Assembly, dividing both the PS (119-92) and the right (32-30). The entirety of the amendment was adopted 317-199 by the National Assembly. The right-wing majority in the Senate, however, adopted a new wording of the amendment with explicit reference to dual citizens (and that loss of citizenship would be decreed by the Council of State, now by law). The PS and the remainder of the left in the Senate voted against the text adopted by the right-wing majority. A constitutional amendment requires a three-fifths majority in a joint session of Parliament (Congress) to be adopted. Judging the Senate and National Assembly’s versions were irreconcilable and that he obviously lacked a three-fifths majority, Hollande abandoned the project.

The government will be remembered (maybe) for its substantial reforms to local and regional government. France’s local and regional government is notoriously messy, complicated and perhaps ‘too heavy’. It is often referred to as a mille-feuille (lit. thousand-leaf), like the dessert, because of the many (confusing) layers – over 35,000 communes (more than any other EU country), over 9,700 intercommunal structures (different forms of communal associations, 101 departments, 13 (previously 22) metropolitan regions, different devolved governments in overseas regions and collectivities and countless exceptions to these rules. Powers are shared between levels, in confusing manners, although the sadistic irony is that France remains a unitary state whose local governments do not have many substantive powers (especially compared to Germany, Spain or Belgium) and lack legislative or fiscal independence. Each successive government has come in with its own ready-made ‘solutions’, which don’t end up solving much.

In 2010, Sarkozy’s government had adopted a controversial and unpopular ‘territorial reform’ which, among other things, merged regional councils and general councils (departments) into a territorial council, which would sit in both regional and general councils. It did not, however, actually merge regions and departments, something which several commissions and a handful of politicians have proposed in the past decade. Hollande promised to repeal the ‘territorial councillor’ (which was quickly done) and begin a ‘new stage in decentralization’ – what became the ‘third act of decentralization‘ (act I: 1982-1983, act II: 2003-2004). It came gradually, in stages, and often seemed improvised and contradictory. The first law, in 2013, changed the electoral system for municipal elections, provided for the semi-direct election of intercommunal councillors in larger communes (population over 1,000), replaced the general council with a departmental council elected using a new electoral system in new redistributed cantons and delayed regional/departmental elections to 2015. The departmental council’s members are now elected in two-member cantons using the so-called binôme system: a man and a woman run as a two-name ticket and voters cast one vote for a binôme, with the same electoral system as the one used in legislative elections. This led to a redistribution of cantons, reducing the number of cantons by half (4,035 to 2,054) though actually slightly increasing the number of elected members (now 4,108); some kind of redistribution was desirable given that over half of cantons were unchanged since 1801 (!) and there were massive population disparities between cantons in the same department.

A more substantive law, the ‘MAPTAM law‘ (2014), dealt with intercommunal organizations and the new en vogue ‘metropolis’ (métropole), a new top echelon of the intercommunal structure for France’s largest urban conurbations initially created by the 2010 reform. The MAPTAM law clarified powers between different levels of local/regional government and created new metropolises, including three with special statuses (Grand Paris, Marseille-Aix and Lyon). There are now 16 metropolises, plus Lyon which is a territorial collectivity rather than intercommunality (replaces the department entirely). The MAPTAM law also reintroduced the ‘general competence clause’, repealed in 2010, which gives territorial collectivities power to intervene in all matters which they hold to be in the local public interest. It is popular with local elected officials, but the central government has disliked it because it leads to power overlaps and disputes between different levels.

The government began planning for the second, more ambitious, stage of its ‘third act’ in 2014, although it mostly seemed as if they were improvising as they went along, testing out various ideas. They mentioned repealing the ‘general competence clause’ (the one which they themselves had reestablished a year before) for departments and regions, reducing the number of metro regions, clarifying powers and abolishing departments/merging departments and regions (which is kind of what Sarkozy had done in 2010 and what the PS repealed in 2012). In June 2014, two bills were finally presented to Parliament: one reducing and redrawing regions, the other clarifying regional powers.

les-nouvelles-regions-metropolitaines_largeur_760The first bill, in the best French Jacobin tradition of Parisian technocrats deciding what’s best for everybody, literally had Hollande – like a participant at the Berlin Conference – redrawing regional boundaries. He proposed reducing the number of regions in metropolitan France and Corsica from 22 to 14 by merging regions. After disagreements between the two houses (the Senate in first reading basically deleted the entire substance of the bill, in second reading it proposed a new map of 15 regions), the National Assembly adopted a map with 13 regions in December 2014 with regional elections delayed until December 2015. Six regions remain unchanged from the pre-reform map (Brittany, Pays-de-la-Loire, Centre, Île-de-France, Provences-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, Corsica) while the other seven regions are created by merging existing regions. Alsace, Lorraine and Champagne-Ardenne merged (Grand Est region); Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardy merged (Hauts-de-France region); Burgundy and Franche-Comté merged (Burgundy-Franche-Comté region); Lower and Upper Normandy merged (Normandy region); Rhône-Alpes and Auvergne merged (Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region); Midi-Pyrénées and Languedoc-Roussillon merged (Occitanie region) and Aquitaine, Limousin and Poitou-Charentes merged (Nouvelle Aquitaine region). The main reason advanced by the government to reduce the number of regions was increasingly the efficiency and effectiveness of public services by creating larger regions “like in other European countries” and to reduce costs. Both of these arguments are questionable, but the second one (cost savings) is nonsensical given that, despite cutting the number of regions by (nearly) half, the number of regional councillors weren’t cut by half but rather remained the same (1,757). There should be some cost savings by reducing the central government’s deconcentrated services in line with the new regions. The new regions reflect cultural, historical, social and economic realities even less than the previous ones and very much reflect the centralized, unitary nature of the French state.

Of course, acting in Jacobin tradition, the government and Parliament didn’t ask for the regions and departments’ opinions, and much less the opinion of the people in those places. Overall, certain elected officials and some people had strong opinions on the matter but most voters didn’t care very much about regional mergers. Some mergers or non-mergers were controversial, especially in regions with strong regional and cultural identities – Alsace protested its disappearance into a ‘greater east’ super-region and an anti-merger regionalist list (Unser Land) in the 2015 regional elections won over 10% of the vote in both Alsatian departments; Brittany was unhappy that Loire-Atlantique was not reunified with the rest of the region (‘historical Brittany’) as many have demanded for decades, although other Breton politicians like defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian celebrated that Bretagne wasn’t merged wholesale with Pays-de-la-Loire. On the other hand, the ‘reunification’ of Normandy got more positive reviews.

The other bill, the ‘new territorial organization of the Republic’ law (NOTRe law), was passed into law in August 2015. The law expands regional powers at the expense of departments, transferring certain powers from the departments to the regions with the objective of ‘clarifying and harmonizing’ powers, with departments limited to managing social assistance and vaguely defined ‘solidarity’. The law abolished the ‘general competence clause’ for regions and departments, compelling them to act within their respective devolved fields.


2015 departmental elections

The departmental and regional elections in March and December 2015 resulted in severe defeats for the PS and the left in general, although with some limited silver linings. The departmental elections, electing all 4,000+ departmental councillors, saw the left lose control of 27 departments, holding only 30 after the elections against 67 for the right and centre. In the first round, the FN won 25.2% of the vote against 36.6% for the right and centre under all its different labels and names, 25.6% for the centre-left including the PS and 11% for the remainder of the left including EELV and the Left Front (FG). The wide array of local electoral alliances, as well as the typical arbitrariness of the interior ministry’s official labeling, makes it difficult (and silly) to establish a clear national picture of votes cast. The general narrative, however, was the success of the right and the FN and the clear defeat of the governing parties led by the PS. The left’s division doomed it in certain departments, like the emblematic Nord.

With the strength of the FN, the old model of left-right second round electoral competition – a constant in French politics since the 1970s, if not earlier, with relatively few exceptions, collapsed. Only 36% of runoffs in March 2015 opposed the left and right whereas the FN was present in 60% of runoffs, and either the left or right excluded from the runoff in 45% of cases. The second rounds, however, revealed the persistence of the ‘glass ceiling’ problem for the FN: lacking sufficient ‘vote reserves’ from candidates eliminated in the first round, it is only able to win runoffs in places where it was already very strong in the first round (40-45%). The FN, present in nearly 1,100 cantons in the runoffs, won only 31 cantons (62 seats) in the second round. It was most successful in left-FN runoffs, which gave it 20 of its 31 wins, because first round right-wing voters are more likely to vote for the FN in a runoff than first round left-wing voters are when their side isn’t qualified. The right, therefore, emerged as the big winner of the 2015 departmental elections with 2,396 seats against 1,597 for the left/radical left. The FN failed to obtain a single departmental presidency.


2015 regional elections

The December 2015 regional elections painted two contrasting images. The first round was a record-breaking success for the FN, which obtained 27.7% of the vote, over 6 million votes and placed first in six out of 13 metro regions. The FN benefited a bit from the November terrorist attacks, which pushed a number of right-wing voters (about 18% of Sarkozy’s first round 2012 voters) to vote FN. The PS-led lists won 23.1% against 26.7% for the united lists of the right (The Republicans, LR, as the UMP was renamed) and centre (UDI). In three regions, the FN seemed to be in a very favourable position: in Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, where Marine Le Pen won 40.6% with a 16% lead over second; PACA, where her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen also won 40.6% with a 14% lead over second and Alsace-Lorraine-Champagne-Ardenne, where senior FN leader Florian Philippot won 36.1% (ahead by 10%). In two other regions, Centre and Burgundy-Franche-Comté, the FN was first and the three-way runoffs (triangulaires) with the left and right appeared to be three-way ties. However, on orders from the Élysée, Matignon and the PS, the PS lists dropped out and endorsed the right in NPDCP and PACA to defeat the FN while the PS list in ALCA refused to drop out (but was unendorsed by the PS).

In the second round, however, the FN was defeated in every single region. Once again, it ran up against its eternal ‘glass ceiling’ problem. It was compounded by an increase in turnout (+8.5% to 58.4% nationally) which hurt the FN, as most new voters supported either the left or right. In NPDCP and PACA, left-wing voters followed their parties’ orders and voted overwhelmingly for the right, and many left-wing voters in ALCA followed the national PS’ orders too and voted for the right against the FN. Marine Le Pen lost 57.7% to 42.2% in NPDCP and the niece lost 54.8% to 45.2% in PACA. Philippot lost 48.4% to 36.1% in ALCA. Overall, the right won 7 regions against 5 for the left in metro France (nationalists and autonomists won in Corsica). Two of the left’s victories – Centre and Burgundy-Franche-Comté – came in very narrow triangulaires. Besides the defeat of the FN, the overall picture of the 2015 regional runoffs was unclear: the right won, but didn’t do as well as in March 2015, while the left performed better, though that may be the result of different second round configurations between March and December (more left-favourable triangulaires in December). If compared to the 2004 and 2010 regional elections, when the left – then in opposition – won 20 then 21 of 22 metro regions, then the left clearly lost in 2015 (especially as it lost the most populous regions: Ile-de-France, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, PACA, NDPCP, ALCA).

One of the government’s most lasting political reforms was the major reform of the cumul des mandats (double jobbing), the very French practice of politicians holding more than one elected office – most often parliamentarians (deputy, senator, MEP) holding any kind of local office (municipal, departmental, regional councillor and/or head of a local executive, like mayor). In 2012, 82% of deputies and 77% of senators held another office and nearly half of them were head of a local executive as mayor or president of a general/regional council. This is the highest, by far, in Europe. Throughout French political history, it has been the norm for a prominent deputy or senator to also be a mayor – député-maire and sénateur-maire (deputy+mayor, senator+mayor). The most extreme examples of the practice included Pierre Mauroy and Jacques Chirac, both prime ministers in the 1980s who were also mayor of a large city simultaneously (Lille, Paris). The most typical argument in favour of the cumul des mandats is that it gives politicians a ‘local footing’, although public opinion is increasingly opposed to cumulards.

Basic restrictions to double jobbing were introduced in 2000 (no more than two local offices, can’t be head of two local execs). A 2014 law, which takes effect after the 2017 legislative and senatorial elections, bans parliamentarians from being head of any local executive body in France (i.e. mayor etc.). In short, this means no more députés-maires and sénateurs-maires: they’ll need to choose between heading their city or region or serving as a parliamentarian in Paris or Brussels. Many incumbent deputies have chosen the former and won’t be seeking reelection in 2017.

Responding to corruption scandals and widespread political distrust, the government also adopted new laws favouring transparency for elected officials and the public sector more generally. The requirement for public officials to publish their asset declaration was significantly expanded and a new high authority was created to receive them.

In 2016, the government exhausted what little political capital it had left in a controversial labour law reform known as the El Khomri law, after Myriam El Khomri, the Minister of Labour (since 2015) who carried the project. Labour law has been an eternal subject of political debate and controversy in France, with successive governments trying every all sorts of policies – subsidized jobs, reduced working time, lower payroll taxes, fiscal incentives to both employers and employees, easier dismissals or ALMPs – to ‘fix’ France’s stubbornly high unemployment rates and sluggish growth numbers. There is little agreement either among politicians or the electorate about major principles and issues – globalization/trade, the free market, economic liberalism, employment policy. One particularly contentious issue has been working time: in 1998-2000, the left-wing Jospin government famously reduced the legal weekly working time to 35 hours, which they argued would reduce unemployment. The right, in power between 2002 and 2012, passed several laws to dilute the effects of the 35 hour workweek or encourage overtime, like the tax exemption on overtime hours passed by Sarkozy in 2007 and repealed by the left in 2012. Liberal economists and international institutions like the IMF and the European Commission have been critical of France’s overly ‘rigid’ labour code, and have encouraged more flexibility in labour legislation especially on issues like dismissals and working time. The self-styled ‘reformist’ Valls government supported such moves. The bill was controversial and unpopular before parliamentary debate even began. Hoping to preemptively address some of the controversies raised, the government significantly revised its bill in mid-March, removing some of the most controversial ideas (cap on financial compensation for unfair dismissals) and watering down many other clauses, but the revamped bill did not satisfy the demands of most unions (particularly more radical ones, led by the CGT). Moreover, initial supporters of the first project – like Pierre Gattaz, the president of the Medef (employers’ association) – criticized the new bill.

Large protests, strikes, blockages and demonstrations against the El Khomri law began in March 2016, mobilizing hundreds of thousands nationally on March 9 and 31 and again in late April, on May Day and in mid-May.

Facing substantial opposition and uncertain of its parliamentary majority, the government invoked article 49.3 during the first reading of the bill in the National Assembly on May 10. The use of article 49.3 was even more controversial than it had been with the Macron law the year before, with the bill’s opponents crying out against a “denial of democracy”. Others pointed out Hollande and Valls’ own inconsistency on the issue: both had opposed not only its use but its very existence when the right was in power (the phrase ‘denial of democracy’ comes from Hollande, in 2005). It reveals the PS’ longstanding double-standards and inconsistencies about some of the key institutions of the Fifth Republic: it’s bad when they’re in opposition, but once they’re in power the system’s great and needs no fixing. The right-wing opposition tabled its own motion of no confidence, but the left-wing opposition – including the PS frondeurs – tried to do likewise. However, the left-wing motion of no confidence received only 56 signatures, two short of the 58 required. Of the 56 signatories, 28 were members of the Socialist group, 13 of the radical left/communist group (GDR), 10 of the green group, 4 were non-inscrits and one came from the radical (RRDP) group. According to French political journalist Laurent de Boissieu, 16 frondeurs did not sign. One may suspect that the government or the PS leadership intervened to prevent a left-wing motion from being successful. The right’s motion received 246 votes, including 15 from the left. The frondeurs did not vote in favour of the right’s motion. With the sum of the right-wing motion and the frondeurs-led failed leftist motion, however, the government lost its majority in the National Assembly: only 284 (49.5%) of the legislature’s 574 members at the time had not supported either motion.

Protests against the bill only increased afterwards. In late May, strikers blocked access to refineries and petroleum depots led to shortages or long lineups at many gas stations in the country. The government called in the CRS (a police unit) to lift blockades or secure access to refineries and depots. The government’s main preoccupation was to ensure the smooth organization of the UEFA Euro 2016 in June and July. Trade unionists – led by the ‘radical’ General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT), Workers’ Force (Force ouvrière, FO), Solidaires (and the UNEF students’ union) – organized blockages or ‘voluntary tolls’ on highways, and more national and local protests drawing hundreds of thousands took place in June and early July. There were increased incidents of police brutality, mistreatment of protesters or journalists, ‘black bloc’ (casseurs) violence and vandalism; as well as criticisms of the police’s behaviour during the protests (‘criminalization of social movements’). In the Senate, the right-wing majority ‘toughened’ the bill in their direction, like removing the 35 hour workweek, and a compromise between the National Assembly (i.e. government) and Senate versions could not be found. The government invoked article 49.3 again on July 5 (new reading in the National Assembly) and July 21 (final reading), without any motion of no confidence being presented (the frondeurs and the leftist opposition again fell short), allowing the bill to be deemed adopted in July. The Constitutional Council validated the bulk of the text and the law was promulgated on August 8. Protests died down during the summer months – vacations are always more important than strikes in France – and in the wake of the July 14 terrorist attack in Nice. After a final protest in September, there were no other major protests against the newly-adopted law, although the CGT and FO have kept the issue alive.

The law retains the 35-hour workweek and current rules regarding overtime pay, but makes it easier for companies to fix overtime compensation rates or exceptionally negotiate longer working hours. Perhaps the structuring idea behind the law is giving preference to company-level collective agreements rather than sector-level agreements, even if the former are less favourable to employees. The government and the law’s supporters argued that this will allow companies to adapt the rules on working time and the like to their environment, while opponents decried an ‘inversion of the legal hierarchy’ which will place downward pressures on working conditions and favour the imposition of more onerous rules by employers. The government denied that the law ‘inverses’ the legal hierarchy. Sector-level agreements still have primacy on certain important matters. In addition, the law controversially alters the rules on the validation of company-level collective agreements: they require ratification by unions representing 50% of employees (in the last elections for union reps), but if not adopted, any union representing more than 30% of employees may organize a referendum on the agreement. Previously, an agreement needed the support of unions representing 30% of employees to be validated.

The law expands the definition of layoffs on economic grounds to include a company’s short-term economic difficulties, measured by a significant decrease in orders or turnovers (different time lengths based on company size). The law also creates ‘offensive’ employment development agreements, which would allow companies to adjust working time and pay to expand to new markets and reach new objectives. An employee’s refusal of an ‘offensive’ agreement would be grounds for a layoff on economic grounds.

To balance things out and to add sweeteners, the law includes various protection measures for employees or other policies to support youth employment. A ‘right to disconnection’ received some attention in the foreign press and the government liked to publicize that, among other measures to ‘adapt work to the digital age’. The government also played up the creation of a ‘personal activity account’ open to all individuals over 16 which merges existing ‘accounts’ which allow people to accumulate training rights or rights gained for work under hardship, volunteering. It should allow for a one-stop online shop for people to access their rights. The law also expands a garantie jeunes, a program to support 16-25 NEETs in their job search. Further details of the law can be found herehere (government website) and here (English).

Polls at the height of the protest movement against the El Khomri law showed that about 60% of the French opposed the law and/or supported the movement against it. The government found little external support for the law: among unions, only the more moderate French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT), French Confederation of Christian Workers (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC) and the National Union of Autonomous Unions (Union nationale des syndicats autonomes, UNSA) had more conciliatory stances (‘renegotiation’) which often amounted to support of the law in face of the CGT, FO and others’ opposition. Widespread electorate to the law and the government’s poor handling of both the parliamentary and ‘street’ debate on the law was reflected in catastrophic approval ratings for both Hollande and Valls. Hollande’s approval (Ifop) fell from 24% in January 2016 to 14-17% after April 2016. Valls got his lowest approval ratings: from 39% in January he fell to 21% in June-July and only rebounded to 26% in November 2016.

The El Khomri law debacle sealed an unpopular and controversial ‘liberal shift’ in the Hollande presidency. In November 2016, Hollande’s approval rating (Ifop) was only 15%. Even a slight majority (55%) of PS sympathizers disapproved of their president, to say nothing of the incredible unanimity of anti-Hollande sentiments on the centre, right and far-right (90-99%) and the extremely high disapproval ratings among FG and EELV sympathizers (75-80%). An October 2016 poll by Ipsos for the Cevipof (SciencesPo’s centre for the study of French politics) as part of its 2017 electoral panel got a lot of international attention: only 4% said they were satisfied by Hollande’s performance. The headlines were misleading because the question’s wording was different from other polls because it was done on a 1-10 scale and included a ‘neither satisfied nor dissatisfied’ category. But still.

Why did Hollande become the most unpopular president of the Fifth Republic? The poor economic situation and the government’s unpopular – at times unsuccessful or ham-fisted – policy responses to the country’s economic problems is a major factor. The poor economic situation contributed to an increase in political distrust and a general sense of pessimism (or fatalism, for some), and also led Hollande to break some of the main promises he had made in 2012. Especially between 2012 and 2014, Hollande was widely perceived as weak, ineffective, indecisive and lacking in authority. The Ayrault government, as explained above, was a mess. Hollande’s indecisiveness, which may have been a strength in conciliating PS factions when he was party boss, was notably demonstrated during the Leonarda affair in 2013.

Indecisive and ineffective, Hollande managed to alienate everyone and please no one. Parts of the left felt betrayed by Hollande’s overt ‘liberal shift’ after 2014, and the ‘securocrat’ shift post-terrorist attacks in 2015 also lost him some more support on the left. The right and far-right never liked him and his actions in power only reinforced their dislike or hatred of him. The ‘liberal shift’ found a few new supporters, mainly from the small liberal centre-right, but most of the right felt that it was too unambitious or insufficient. It is true that from an economically liberal perspective, the two most famous landmark measures of the ‘liberal shift’ – the Macron and El Khomri laws – weren’t transcendental, redefining pieces of legislation. On immigration, the right repeatedly criticized the government for being weak or ineffective. Ministry of Interior data show an increase in permanent residency permits, visas, naturalizations, deportations/expulsions and asylum seeker requests since 2012, although in most cases these trends began well before Hollande’s presidency. Hollande’s policies on criminal justice, housing, gay marriage or taxes also alienated much of the right.

hollande-rentree-sourire-afpAs if that wasn’t enough, Hollande quickly became everyone’s favourite punching bag. The popular perception of him has typically been that of a friendly, amiable but weak and somewhat stupid man who is completely out of his depth. One of his popular nicknames is Flanby, after a caramel custard which collapses once removed from its container. Social media is filled with photoshopped pictures of him looking like an idiot. In January 2014, a tabloid magazine revealed that Hollande was having an affair with actress Julie Gayet. The presidency announced Hollande’s separation with his partner, Valérie Trierweiler (a journalist he had dated since 2005/2010), in a dry communiqué. Trierweiler’s damning tell-all book, Merci pour ce moment, came out in September 2014 and was a best-seller. In it, she described Hollande as a cold, cynical and dishonest man and claims that he calls his (working-class) voters “toothless” (sans-dents). The book ruined Hollande’s personal image.

In 2012, Hollande and the PS had campaigned heavily against corruption in Sarkozy’s government. In power, the PS now faced corruption scandals of its own. The most significant scandal was the Cahuzac affair. The junior minister for the budget, Jérôme Cahuzac, who was at the time seen as one of the fiscally orthodox ‘heavyweights’ of the government, was accused in December 2012 by Mediapart of having a secret offshore bank account in Switzerland. Cahuzac denied the story and the government closed ranks around him. In March 2013, however, a judicial inquiry was opened against Cahuzac for tax evasion and he was forced to resign. The government’s reaction shifted to one of indignation and outrage against such an “unforgivable moral fault” (as Hollande said). The Cahuzac affair led to new anti-corruption and transparency legislation being adopted. But it lastingly destroyed the image of the government as honest or transparent. In 2014, Thomas Thévenoud, a recently-appointed secretary of state, was forced to resign after only nine days when it was revealed that he hadn’t paid his taxes, rent, parking tickets and power bills. He later claimed that he suffered from “administrative phobia”, which is definitely an excuse I want to try to avoid paying for stuff. The Cahuzac affair and other political scandals which made headlines reinforced popular, anti-establishment sentiments of tous pourris (all rotten) against politicians. In 2016, 72% of voters said that their politicians are corrupt.

In October 2016, as Hollande was weighing his options for 2017, a new tell-all book was released: Un président ne devrait pas dire ça…, a book by two journalists who had followed and interviewed Hollande for five years. The book revealed embarrassing and damning private statements by Hollande about the French football team (not very smart), immigrants (too many), Islam, Donald Trump, the judiciary (cowards), the PS (a hara-kiri or liquidation was needed), national security (targeted assassinations, use of the state of emergency to control environmentalists during the COP21), Sarkozy (‘little de Gaulle obsessed by money’), the PS president of the National Assembly Claude Bartolone (out of his depth) and foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (inaudible lackey). The book’s details ruined Hollande’s already acrimonious relationships with other PS heavyweights like Manuel Valls and Claude Bartolone (who apparently stopped talking to Hollande).

On December 1, 2016, Hollande announced that he would not seek reelection. His decision to forgo a second term had been the subject of significant speculation since at least 2014, but it was still unexpected. All incumbent French presidents under the Fifth Republic (who didn’t die or resign in office) had sought a second term.

The 2016 Fractures françaises study by Ipsos gives a thorough overview of the prevalent pessimistic, distrustful and anti-establishment mood in France. Over 70% distrust the media, the EU, both houses of Parliaments and deputies – and over 90% distrust political parties. Nevertheless, the French still like their local politicians – 63% trust mayors, and about 40% trust departmental and regional councillors. 86% said that France is declining, although 62% say this decline isn’t irreversible: pessimism, but not necessarily fatalism or defeatism. Dissatisfaction with the workings of democracy is very high: 83% said their ideas aren’t well represented, nearly 90% say that politicians act to favour their self-interests. Support for democracy as “the best system possible” fell from 76% to 70% between 2014 and 2016.

France remains divided on issues including the economy, welfare, the EU and immigration. Right-wing and left-wing attitudes towards welfare are both as widespread: 57% agree that “the unemployed could find a job if they really wanted” but 56% also agree with “taking from the rich to give to the poor”. A majority (57%) support limiting the role of the state in the economy and giving more freedom to businesses. A very large majority (70%) feel that France is moving towards welfare dependency (assistanat).

A very large majority (74%) want to limit EU integration and reinforce national powers, but at the same time the same percentage (73%) support the Euro and a near-majority (48%) say EU membership is a good thing. Anti-immigrant sentiments remain fairly widespread, with 74% saying that immigration isn’t necessary to find workers, 65% agreeing that there are too many foreigners in France (although that’s 5% less than in 2013), 63% agreeing that “we no longer feel at home”, 58% complaining that immigrants don’t do enough to integrate to French society and 58% saying that anti-white racism is fairly widespread in France. On the other hand, only a minority (41%) think reducing the number of immigrants would reduce unemployment and even fewer (32%) agree that immigrants are taking jobs away.

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