After spending several weeks in France for the holidays, it was not difficult the sense the current malaise floating over France. Despite the current economic difficulties, the malaise is mainly social. One of François Hollande’s platforms during his presidential campaign was to reunite all social classes, ethnic groups under one same roof; so far he has failed. In the case of this article, I will only look at three elements: reflection on the direction of France since the election of Hollande; the place of Europe on the French agora; and the debate over gay marriage.
Where is President Hollande taking France?
François Hollande was elected in May 2012 for two reasons: first, anti-sakorzysm; second, hope to dodge the austerity bullet. So far, President Hollande has failed on both platforms: Sarkozy is still floating over French politics and the austerity has hit France in full force. His honeymoon period was a short one as he has been under heavy criticism since the middle of summer 2012. His popularity rating has been around 40% in December 2012 and around 35% for his Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault. It has, however, increased with the recent military intervention in Mali.
In his wishes for 2013, François Hollande laid out three goals for 2013: employment, competitiveness, and growth. His speech on December 31st had for main objective to build up optimism for the year of 2013.
The message emanating after the first meeting of the government early January was unity and team play. François Hollande has made clear through his prime minister that cohesion of the government will be central for 2013 if he wants to be able to implement the reforms needed in restructuring the labor laws and address the deficit of France. This will certainly be difficult if members of his government are involved in some kind of controversies as it has been the case with the latest allegations around the minister of budget, Jérôme Cahuzac, suspected of having assets in Singapore recently wired from a UBS Swizz bank account.
Then of course, the question of taxation at 75% on the wealthiest of French citizens has seriously divided the country. On December 29th, 2012, the Conseil Constitutionel, a France’s constitutional watchdog, blocked a tax increase of 75% on the wealthiest. This has been a major blow to Hollande’s government. Nevertheless the debate is not closed as many of France’s cultural and sports figures such as actor Gérard Depardieu have been not only critical of the current government and seriously condemned by the same government. Mr. Depardieu just received his Russian passport and continues to divide the French public opinion. However, there is a sense among the French that taxes have become more of a punitive instrument than a contribution to the recovery of the French economy.
Is Europe dead in the heart of Frenchmen?
The European Union seems to be the largest loser of this Eurocrisis. French citizens do not look at Brussels with kind eyes; but are instead very disconnected with the current course of the European Union. The fact that the EU won the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize is long gone and such event was seriously misunderstood.
However, as published in leading French newspapers such as Le Monde and Libération, several articles and op-ed underlined the centrality of the European Union for the future of France and Europe. Democracy, one of the core acquis communautaires, is fading away solely as proven by the political situations in Italy, Greece and Romania.
With the latest allegations emanating from Britain to possibly leave the EU by 2017, the debate in France on the Brexit has remained under control. This is not the case in the US with the latest call by the Obama administration that a British retrieval from the EU could have not only disastrous consequences from Britain but as well for the US, losing a key ally evolving in Brussels. Even though I have been advocating for a clear position by London to either leave or stay, it would certainly be a major bump on the road of European integration. Organizing a referendum on the status of Britain in the EU in the next year in this climax of austerity would once again – as it was the case with the 2005 referendum in France and Holland – reflect the approval or not of Cameron’s domestic policies rather than an opposition to the EU. Unfortunately, or maybe for the best, the government of Hollande has remained quiet on the issue. Playing the role of unison could certainly favor his administration and increase its credibility on the European stage.
Jacques Delors, former President of the European Commission and one of the greatest European politicians suggested that Britain should leave the EU considering its opposition to fostering the European integration. He claimed “the Brits only cares about their economic interests, and at nothing else. We could offer them a special partnership.”
Is fraternité dead?
The French policy of assimilation is not working anymore. The French society is more divided than ever on the question of integration and solidarity. The sense of belonging to the French patrie is fading away based on misunderstanding of French values on one side, and lack of
transformations of these values on the other. French values centered around the State – l’Etat – and a strong Christian heritage, despite the recent secularism emerging in early 20th century, have difficulties to change and adapt to the realities of the 21st century. Putting aside the hot topic of assimilation of 2nd and 3rd generations of French citizens of Arab descendants inside the French society, one of the interesting debates around the evolution of French values to follow in 2013 will be on the question of gay marriage. François Hollande has been clear during his presidential campaign that he is in favor of a homosexual union. However, the French right, especially the UMP, and extreme right, Front National, have been opposed to such transformation of the marriage. Both parties raise the same concerns that the Republican party in the US. Several massive manifestations have taken place in France against gay marriage on January 13th.
The question of fraternité certainly goes beyond ethnicity and culture, it also encompasses sexual rights and equality. The battle, inside the Parliament and in the street, will be fierce and fascinating. It has already started with the criticisms by Christine Boutin, President of the Christian Democrat Party, of Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the spokesperson of the government, following her comments in favor of gay marriage in a French junior high. The question of gay rights is a direct challenge to the conservative French values.
So what does 2013 reserve for France?
The key for France and Europe is: youth unemployment, youth unemployment, youth unemployment. The unemployment rate of the European youth is worrisome and the threat of a lost generation is great. Countries such as Greece, Spain and Portugal have already taken a serious leap forward toward a lost generation. The brain drain from Southern Europe is massive and will hurt the economic recovery and transformation of the society in the years and decades to come. Even though François Hollande is committed to bringing back growth in France, the emphasis must be brought to job creation for the youth. The levels of précarité, caused by low paid jobs and short-term contracts, in France are serious and if unsolved may lead to long-term consequences to the recovery of France. As illustrated by the chart below, 32.3% of the precarious employees belong to the category 15-29 years old. And these numbers were from 2010, it may have increased these last couple years.
Last, in term of foreign policy, which has as well been a serious looser under President Hollande, France, a historically active foreign policy actor, is fading away from the international stage. Such statement was true until January 11th when the French
army launched operation Serval in Mali. This war in Mali has transformed, at least for the moment, his presidency by making him more presidential. The war is only in its third week with a certain degree of success as the French army has been able to retake most of the cities. Now President Hollande will have to be more strategic in trying to bring the EU in the game as a stable Mali and Sahel is in the interest of the Europe as whole. Leaving the EU aside, François Hollande needs to understand that the war in Mali is central in demonstrating to the rest of the world, watching quitely, that France is still a middle size great power.