Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Hollande: time to dissolve parliament and call national elections?

Rumours that François Hollande may dissolve parliament and call elections began to circulate a week ago when he said in public that he would not stand for re-election if he and his government did not succeed in reducing unemployment. This was a significant statement because it is by no means certain that he will be able to lower unemployment given the economic outlook. Also, he is said by some advisors to be adopting a policy of secretive 'bunkerisation' at the Elysée and is becoming weary at the constant criticism he is receiving in the press. He was also shocked by the extent of voter dissatisfaction that saw the socialists trounced in recent national local elections.

This spectacular defeat forced Hollande to be seen to react, and that's why he let PM Jean-Marc Ayrault go and installed Manuel Valls in Matignon to replace him. But the change has not been anything like effective so far.On the contrary, things have gone from bad to worse.

The day Valls was named a group of 100 socialist dissidents let him and Hollande know that they might not give the new government the parliamentary vote of confidence that would officially allow it to take office and begin work. They backed down in the end but the tone was set - the dissidents were here to stay.

What are the dissidents angry about? They are angry at Hollande's Social-Democratic conversion, which they say goes against everything that socialism represents. They feel that nothing is being done to make life easier for ordinary citizens and that the poor are being milked dry to help the rich. In other words, their objections are of an ideological nature.

Meanwhile, the reality on the ground remains dire. France failed recently to persuade the EU to give it more time to get its finances in order. This latest demand was the third in so many years and the EU's curt refusal showed that it has finally decided to force France to engage the structural and economic reforms that it has been trying to put off or has not been able to implement.

Further bad news followed in the form of Hollande being obliged to fire a prominent Elysée advisor because he was suspected of a conflict of interest in his business dealings. The opposition poured oil on the flames and Hollande's popularity ratings began to fall even further.

The extent of his unpopularity became painfully clear to him today when he was roundly bood by socialists who had come to hear him speak at a ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of legendary founding socialist Jean Jaurés, a man of deep socialist convictions who is still revered within the party today. Accusing him of betraying socialism and Jaurés' legacy, the protestors also demanded to know why he had not held his election promises to be 'the enemy of finance'.

Then, just this afternoon, the dissidents decided this afternoon to reject planned spending cuts by the government and either vote against them in parliament or abstain. These cuts are designed to contribute to the €50 billion the government is trying to raise to honour François Hollande's New Year promise to cut the business sector some tax slack to enable companies to keep prices down and hire more staff. That plan is the 'Pact of Responsibility', and Hollande said at the time that it was "urgently needed". Four months on however, almost no progress has been made on it and this is largely due to the dissidents' stalling tactics.

In other words, Hollande is facing a serious backbench revolt that is holding up reforms and legislation and he and his government have been unable to move forward on changes at a time when they are of the utmost importance.

How long can this situation be allowed to continue? A massively unpopular president and government, open revolt in his party, a paralysed parliament, the country is to all intents and purposes at a standstill.

François Hollande is very much aware of his situation and may well be thinking that if he cannot be permitted to implement his own policies that it's time to begin to consider dissolving parliament and asking the people to decide in legislative elections. If this were to happen the result would almost certainly be a victory for the opposition UMP and a 'government of cohabitation' between Hollande and his enemies, who may, ironically, be more open to his more liberal plans. As to the dissidents, many of them would be out of a job.

What if the dissidents threw out his cuts when they are voted upon? What if he threatened dissolution? Would the threat force the dissidents to climb down? We don't know yet, but we do know that something must be done, and soon, to ensure that France has a functioning government at the very moment it most desperately needs one.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Suicidal French socialists should take Winston Churchill's advice

Courtesy of AFP/Archives
It has been a week to the day since the Socialists and the president were handed the biggest defeat in local elections ever recorded during the 5th Republic. The nature of the cabinet reshuffl that has followed seems to indicate that Hollande has recognised that his government needs to speak with one voice if it is to be credible, and Valls is determined to put a stop to the squabbles and contradictory declarations that characterised Ayrault's reign.

Yet, incredibly, Valls and Hollande are today facing the biggest revolt by backbench Socialists since Hollande became elected, and the cacophony of dissent is deafening. Added to this is the fact that the ecologists have decided not to participate in the new government, thus weakening it from day one.

It began on the very evening that the election results were announced, but it went relatively unnoticed at first. Consisting of a document called The Conditions for Confidence - For a Contract of the Majority, it demands that the government and Hollande change their policies and insists that Hollande must implement his election promises. It goes on to outline a series of measures its authors say should be taken immediately in order to change course.

The reason for the dissent is that Hollande and Valls have made it clear that the government's policy package is to remain more or less intact. This means we shall see more cuts and more money - €50bn - dedicated to helping businesses to create new jobs. It's a brave - some would say foolhardy - move designed to get France's economy back on track and reduce deficits.

Who is behind it? The main instigator seems to be no less that party First Secretary Martine Aubry, a woman who has never hidden her disdain for Manuel Valls and who is still licking her wounds after being defeated in her efforts to become Prime minister after Hollande's victory. This led her to refuse a cabinet post and keep her distance from Matignon. So far the document has been signed on to by 86 députés and senior left-wing figures, including the First Vice-president of the National Assembly and the presidents of several parliamentary commissions. At least a couple of dozen more are expected to sign it before Valls presents his new policies to parliament for a vote of confidence next Tuesday.

It begins by declaring that "dialogue with the new government begins now" and goes on to list its demands. Here are those that are directly related to the economy;
[We must] obtain a reorientation of Europe that puts an end to the policies of austerity that have pushed Europe into recession [by establishing] sustainable budgetary trajectories....
[We must] concentrate public means on the real creation of jobs and intensify industrial renewal. For that, we must substitute a national investment pact, negotiated with companies, for the more costly conditions that are without conditions [for business] that are being considered right now in the Pact of Responsibility.
[We demand] measures in favour of low salary earners, fiscal reform and a progressive CSG [a tax that helps finance the Social Security system] and an effort in favour of those on modest retirement benefits.
[We need to] Reaffirm and amplify the choices and engagements undertaken in 2012: beef up efforts to regulate financial and banking activities.
To put that into plain English;

- France should confront the EU (and Germany) and demand that the very budgetary constraints that France helped to create to save the euro should be scrapped in favour of a more laxist approach that would increase national debt, thus risking the ire of the markets, the IMF and the moneylenders.
- France should create tax-funded jobs, thus increasing the tax burden on households in order to create artificial jobs that don't create wealth. Also, business should be forced to contribute to the effort, thus lessening the possibility of them creating real jobs and frightening investors away.
- More public money should be found to help the less well off.
- Hollande should put his "I am the enemy of finance" promise into effect, with stricter demands being placed upon the markets and banks, despite the fact that doing so unilaterally would ensure that France became the international paria of the world of business, lending and investment.

In other words, this document demands that France revert to the very policies that got it into this mess in the first place. Hollande tried them for almost a year until it became clear that doing so risked driving the economy straight over a cliff and pushing the country into a deep recession.

French socialists still seem to be stuck in a timewarp in which believe that business, bosses and the rich are their enemies and that France can tax its way out of debt using their money. Adopting these policies would be akin to committing economic suicide and Hollande and Valls should reject these demands out of hands.

I am reminded of these wise words;

"I contend that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket trying to lift himself up by the handle."- Winston Churchill

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Hollande and Valls create France's first ever de facto Social-Democrat government

Manuel Valls, French Social Democrat
The day after the Socialist's and François Hollande's crushing defeat in the local elections saw not only Hollande but a slew of other government heavyweights insisting that yes yes, "we have heard the message of the French people."

Well, they may have 'heard the message', but Hollande has clearly decided that it's not because he heard it that he should listen to it. That's why he has chosen to continue to implement his highly unpopular policies, which consist of a mix of measures designed to help businesses, tax households and kickstart a decrease in France's record unemployment rate via structural reforms. Going further, he has eliminated a couple of dissenting voices in the ranks of the cabinet and installed Manuel Valls in Matignon. But why Valls?

Hollande's presidential election campaign was highly ambiguous, alternating as it did between promising to reform France's antiquated job market and saying he was the "enemy of finance", or saying he would reduce public spending yet promising job creation based on it being financed by the state. However, after a few initial months trying to borrow his way out of debt whilst continuing to spend he was sharply reprimanded by the EU, investors and the markets. It was at this point that he took the plunge and opted for what is called in France 'the social compromise'. This is the name given to the post war acceptance by the left that the head-to-head ideological class fight against capital was doomed to defeat and that it had become necessary to trade off some of its more hardline values and compromise more with a changing world. In other words, Hollande began to 'do a Tony Blair' and adopt more liberal policies.

Mid-January saw Hollande announcing his 'pact of responsibility', a plan to inject money into the business world and make it easier for companies to hire and fire, and to drive his point home he announced that he was a Social-Democrat in the sense that he was going to "take action to reach a compromise with big business." The announcement was roundly condemned by the left wing of his party and all the other left-wing parties, the press didn't quite know what to make of it all, and the public became even more disillusioned with him than it had been up till then. But the government was rattled by the extent of the revolt, which reached its peak when the local elections came around, hence Hollande's drubbing. Hollande now needed a whipping boy, a sacrifice to feed to the lions of public opinion.

Enter Manuel Valls. He was a natural choice for two reasons. Firstly, he is a stickler for discipline, and party discipline in particular. During Ayrault's time dissention was rife within the cabinet, which sent out conflicting statements on just about everything to the point where the government looked more like a rudderless ship with a rowdy and rebellious crew aboard than anything else. Valls, however, is expected to restore order and impose a more coordinated and disciplined system of communicating with the press and public, whereby unofficial press statements and interviews shall become more sparse and dissention within the ranks sanctioned. Think 'professional', instead of 'amateur', politics.

More importantly however, he has been chosen because he shares Hollande's political and ideological approach. Intensely disliked by left-wingers, he, like Hollande, is a self-proclaimed Social-Democrat whose ideas have often been compared to those of Tony Blair. He will be best remembered at the Interior ministry for continuing to implement policies from the days of Sarkozy that resulted in a no-nonsense policy of deporting Roma and other illegal immigrants as well as failed asylum-seekers.

He is also known to be a critic of the dogmatic left-wing approach to fixing problems that consists of clamouring for more spending as well as tighter controls over the business sector. A pragmatist, Valls considers that the only way out of the economic hole that France is in is to reform its employment legislation, help businesses to create jobs and accept that belts are going to have to be tightened. In other words, he is a 'Hollandist'.

The Hollande-Valls tandem shall probably last until the next presidential elections, three years from now, and between now and then they are to steer the country through a round of spending cuts, debt-paying and structural reform of the economy in general that is designed to get the country back on its feet.

One may agree or not with these policies, but one thing's for sure, Hollande and Valls are no longer representative of a socialist agenda. They are implementing an unabashedly social-democratic agenda. If they fail, the right will sweep back into power like a tsunami, and the Socialist Party will be in opposition yet again after just one term in office.

But if they succeed, they will, ironically, have effectively killed off French Socialism and replaced it with fully-fledged social democracy.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

French local elections: Hollande is not the only big loser

A French polling card, one of millions that went unused today
The result of today's French local elections was already a foregone conclusion as early as midday, when the press announced that just 19.83% of the electorate had turned out thus far for the second round.

Meanwhile, opposition UMP and Front National voters had their tails up. They knew they had every chance on capitalising on their first round gains, they were smelling blood, and they have finally got it in the form of a crushing defeat for the socialists and François Hollande.

This was the first national ballot since Hollande's election in May 2012, and as such this shattering defeat effectively represents payback time for a President and government who have been in trouble since the day they were elected. Hollande quickly came under pressure to deliver on his best-known election slogan, which was "I am the enemy of finance", and indeed he did begin his mandate with some harsh news for business and good news for the public. But as the country's financial situation degraded it was soon clear that this honeymoon could, and would, not last. 'Finance' finally picked up the gauntlet and France has been harshly sanctioned by international financial organisations, investors and the credit rating agencies ever since. Finally, disastrous unemployment levels, a catastrophic loss of foreign investment and widespread discontent with the way the country was being run led him to capitulate and tax households to the limit whilst giving tax breaks and other favours to business in a desperate ateempt to stimulate the jobs market.

In other words, disastrous as this result is for François Hollande and his government, it comes as no surprise. The first round resulted in very poor results for the socialists, whereas the UMP and FN did well. The abstention rate last week was 36.45%, and today saw it reach yet another new record high of 38%.

Unsurprisingly, the UMP, which despite the fact that it has had more of it share of problems lately what with a bitterly divided leadership and much internal squabbling, is tonight's big winner, having taken France's fourth-biggest city - Toulouse - as well as Saint-Etienne, Carcassonne, Laval, Quimper, Roubaix, Ajaccio, and many other towns.

The Front National captured a record number of towns, mainly in the south of the country. This tally included some fairly sizeable towns such as Béziers and Fréjus,

As for the Socialists, the pickings were meager, with the victory off Annie Hidalgo in Paris in a closely-fought battle being the only tiny sliver of good news on what has otherwise been an awful day for them, a day during which they lost well over 150 small-to-medium towns.

The future now looks extremely bleak for Hollande, who is widely expected to announce a cabinet reshuffle within the next few days, with PM Jean-Marc Ayrault being tipped to be replaced by either Laurent Fabius or Manuel Valls.

But the biggest loser here isn't Hollande, who is a career politician. After all, he's 'just' a president, and as such he can be replaced. What cannot be replaced however, at least not in the next few years, is the public's lost faith in its institutions and politicians. Today's record high abstention rate and sanction vote are merely the outward signs of a deep malaise in French society, a society that is becoming increasingly alienated from the democratic process and is profoundly cynical about its future prospects.

Successive French governments have tried to put off essential economic and social reforms for as long as possible. But these reforms are slowly but surely being imposed upon a recalcitrant France by globalised trade and a change in the world region pecking order that sees Europe in decline and Asia on the up. Hollande too has been resisting, and although he has done enough to persuade the moneylenders and the EU to stay off his back for a short while, much more needs to be done to catch up on the long years spent neglecting major structural problems in the economy.

France is a country that knows it must change, but is tetanised by fear at the very prospect of having to do so. The people are resigned and dispirited, and the reputation of the ruling classes is as bad as it has ever been in all the 27 years I have lived here.

What France badly needs right now is a president and parliament that can rise to the occasion and persuade the people to support them, however grudgingly, as they seek to get the country back on its feet.

In other words, France needs the one thing it doesn't have today - a pragmatic, charismatic and inspiring leader.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

France struggles to turn good ideas into profit: is it serious Doc?

Panama Canal construction - 1896
I have often heard French people declare that 'France is good at inventing things but bad at selling them', and I was reminded of that adage this morning by a combination of the content of two articles I read on the online French press.

The first article is on Le Figaro's '100 Years Ago' pages, and it recounts the interesting story of how the Panama Canal was imagined by the French, but built and exploited by the Americans.

Various countries and leaders had dreamed of building the canal since as early as the 1500s, but the French would be the first to try. Construction began in 1881 with major funding from both industry and the state, but the project soon proved to be more difficult than had initially been planned. It was eventually abandoned due to a combination of the ill-prepareness of geological and other studies, insufficiently trained engineers with little experience, unexpectedly high death rates among the workers due to malaria, poor equipment, financial mismanagement and political corruption. The fiasco had cost a fortune in lost investment and the loss of 22,000 lives due to illness and accidents.

The result was that the United States - who were also interested in building a canal - subsequently took over the project and finished it successfully thanks to better preparations and more expertise in the field of construction. France had conceded what would have been a major commercial and geopolitical advantage to America and its influence in South America has never fully recovered to this day.

I then went to Nouvelobs' site where I came across an article with the headline 'The French invent lots of things, and foreigners profit from them'. The article discusses the results of an international classification of countries according to the number of patents for newly-invented products they produce, and at first glance France does very well indeed seeing as it takes third place.

But the good news stops there. France may possess more patents than many other countries but the vast majority of the money it makes from them comes from selling them to foreign countries, who then go on to transform the prototypes and theoretical expertise they have just bought into sellable - and profitable - products. The country's technological prowess may be excellent, but France's industrial trade balance is in deficit.

French Minister for Higher Education and Research  recently summed up the situation with the following statement, made during a parliamentary speech;
"We must overcome the valley of death that separates research and innovation here in France. [...] French mentalities have been recalcitrant with respect to the links between the academic world, the world of research, and industry for far too long." She pleads for improvements in the way France looks at intellectual property " ensure that the excellence of our research, which is financed by public money, is not pillaged by others."
So there we have it. Two examples over a 100-year timespan that demonstrate France's ability to imagine and begin projects only to fail to capitalise on them due to a lack of vision and foresight. It would seem then that France is indeed "..good at inventing things but bad at selling them'.

But does that really matter? After all, France is still one of the top six economies in the world and the French, despite their penchant for complaining, enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world.

I am reminded of another expression that the French often use to describe themselves. It says that the French are 'sweet dreamers'. Perhaps they are after all, and there's nothing wrong with that in my book.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

A self-confessed pedophile is released on bail to await his trial. WHAT????!!!!

A 27-year-old military serviceman from Toulon in France who stands accused of repeatedly raping his niece over a period of three years has been released on bail.

The accused man has already admitted that he raped his niece on five occasions, the first of which was on July 1, 2009. The girl was 11 years old at that time. He is also known to have accessed pedopornographic images on the Internet over a period of several months.

The judge justified his decision to free the man to await trial instead of holding him in custody pending trial by saying that he had "furnished details about all the acts of which he is accused", that nothing "would lead one to consider that he lied during his spoken statements to the police", and that there is nothing to indicate "that there may be other victims". The judge concluded that the accused "presented solid guarantees that he would not skip bail." 

It goes without saying that this judgement has outraged many people. The police are furious that long months of hard work designed to put a suspected repeat-offender pedophile behind bars has failed even before his trial, the public - and parents of young children in particular - is dumbfounded, and it's the same story for all those associations and other organisations that fight child abuse and pedophilia. 

And I am outraged too. I am absolutely incensed that in this, a supposedly modern and progressist society which says it respects human - and that includes children's - rights, a judge can free a man who has admitted that he raped a child five times. I am sickened by the judge's mealy-mouthed, totally biased and subjective reasoning, and - although I would never dream of voting for them myself - I fully understand why the French political party which is making the most positive progress in polls at the moment is the.......

.......extreme-right National Front. 

Monday, 30 September 2013

Photos of the Vieux Port of Marseille

Readers of the French press will be aware that newspapers invariably jump on every gangland killing in Marseille and hold it up as an example of the city's chronic problem with drug dealing and violent crime in general. The articles are often given angst-ridden and dramatic headlines such as 'Marseille: the most dangerous city in France!!' Much debate then follows about the best way to resolve the issues. Equally predictable is the reaction to these stories of the people of Marseille. They hold that the press is exaggerating the phenomenon and giving the city a bad name. The truth though - as is ever the case with this kind of phenomenon - lies somewhere in between these two extremes.

Also true though is that despite the city's problems, the Vieux Port of Marseille is one of the most beautiful ports to be found not only in France, but in the whole of Europe.

So here are some photos of it that I took a couple of years back. The one here at the top of the page is the statue of the Virgin Mary with Jesus on top of the Notre Dame de la Garde, which overlooks the port and is the highest point in the city. I'm posting these photos as a reminder that Marseille is not just about violence, it's about a historical past, grace and elegance too.


Humans have inhabited Marseille and its environs for almost 30,000 years, but the Vieux Port didn't begin to take on an international aspect until after the Greeks arrived there. There is testimony to that in the form of a commemorative plaque that is imbedded into the quayside. It reads;
It was here that Greek sailors who had come from the Greek city of Phocea in Asia Minor came ashore in about 600 BC. They founded Marseille, from where civilisation would illuminate the West.

The port is of the picture postcard variety and it's easy to understand why.

The Vieux Port is home to many sailing boats and smaller yachts.


Here is the perimeter of the commercial shipping port, which is of vital importance to the city's economy. I took this photo from a vantage point at which I could turn around and see the Vieux Port.

The port is U-shaped, with the top of the U representing the exit towards the Mediterranean, but if you're near the exit and want to visit the other side don't worry, you don't have to go back down and all around the U to get there because some bright entrepreneur once had the excellent - and very popular - idea of operating a ferry from one side to the other. Here's the crew, and as this photo shows the people of Marseille like to take things easy when they can. From whence this dual command post, at which one of these guys sails the ferry across, and the other sails it back. Very efficient.

The Vieux Port was heavily defended many years ago by forts on either side of the entrance. Here's one of them, St Jean.

Once beyond it you are in the Mediterranean, and from the moment this fort is no longer in view you are en route for the rest of the world.......

But beautiful though it is, there is much more to Marseille than its port, so I'll be back in a few days to post some photos of the downtown area and its attractions.

Have a good day, wherever you may be..