In Hollande’s term: The French change from discontent to anger

In Hollande’s term: The French change from discontent to anger
Mon Nov 18, 2013 10:01:37

François Hollande’s presidency was facing an unprecedented crisis on Thursday as his popularity hit a new record low of just 15 per cent and a leaked government document warned that France risks being engulfed by a wave of “exasperation and anger”.

France is no stranger to huge street protests against unpopular measures and regular fears of an “autumn of discontent”. So when violent protests erupted in Brittany over recent weeks, with dozens of state-paid traffic tolls and speed radars burned down over a green tax, the Socialist government shrugged, postponed the contentious levy and hoped the problem would quietly go away.

The theory was that given the disparate nature of those protesting — from bosses and farmers to workers and lorry drivers, and political activists from the far-Left to the far-Right — there was no need to fear any cohesive revolutionary force.

But in a confidential note leaked to newspapers Le Figaro and Le Monde on Thursday, regional government prefects warned the Socialist government that far from protests dying out, all over France they detected a “dangerous climate” and “sense of despondency”.

In alarmist tones rare in such administrative documents, the note compiled from reports by prefects in France’s 101 regions said: “Throughout the country (they) have come to the same conclusion of a society rife with tension, exasperation and anger.” The French, it said, now openly questioned “the legitimacy of taxes” and that a “mixture of latent discontent and resignation” risked spontaneously “erupting” at any moment among violent protest groups that are no longer governed by “structured social movements”.

The protests are “spreading to territories or sectors that were previously spared”, warned the note compiled on October 25.

Since its release, the climate of revolt has only deepened, with a series of almost daily demonstrations often from groups whose only common ground is fury at Mr Hollande’s policies.

On Monday, Mr Hollande was humiliatingly booed at Remembrance Day celebrations with protesters shouting at him to step down.

Primary school teachers then started a fresh round of strikes to protest plans to extend their working week by half-a-day to four and a half days from September this year.

Self-employed tradespeople demonstrated on Wednesday at being “asphyxiated” by more than a billion euros of new taxes this year. Riding teachers also took to the streets over a planned VAT rise and midwives staged a go-slow over their claim to be paid like doctors.

The only bright spot came on Thursday when clubs in the top two divisions of French football announced that they have postponed a strike planned for the end of the month in protest at a 75 percent tax rate on high earners.

The groundswell of discontent has fuelled a political crisis in Paris amid growing speculation Mr Hollande could be forced to call a snap parliamentary election.

There have also been calls, even from his Socialist party, to replace Jean-Marc Ayrault, the embattled prime minister, with Manuel Valls, the popular and hard-line interior minister, or Martine Aubry, the mayor of Lille and architect of the 35-hour working week.

One poll out on Thursday suggested a majority of French people would prefer him to dissolve parliament — an increasingly perilous prospect ahead of next May’s European elections in which the far-Right Front National is expected to make major gains.

Meanwhile, Mr Hollande’s hopes of pinning a rebound on reversing record unemployment were dealt a fresh blow when the state statistics agency said the economy had shrunk by 0.1 percent in the third quarter.

And in a stark warning, the OECD slammed the Socialists’ failure to improve “competiveness” or tackle a number of “weaknesses”, from high labour costs to huge employment taxes, bloated bureaucracy and a stifling regulatory framework.

Unemployment, meanwhile continued to rocket, with the number of people looking for work rising by 60,000 in September to 3.29 million.

Against this backdrop, Mr Hollande smashed all previous unpopularity records on Thursday in a YouGov poll giving him a mere 15 per cent approval rating - a drop of six points in a month.

Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a former Right-wing prime minister, warned the government could not simply “park itself and say : 'I’ll hunker down, go into neutral and want for more favorable winds.’ “That’s fatal at a time when the French have gone from discontent to anger, and we can see well that they are going from anger to violence. The rise of racism, worrying and a gesture of appeasement is needed fast.”

Jean-Pierre Bel, Socialist head of the Senate, said: “I don’t see what other policies could be put in place today.” Hours later, the government announced yet another U-turn by promising farmers they would not be hit by a new tax on undeveloped property.

By: Henry Samuel

Source: The Telegraph

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