President François Hollande promised to “pacify” France. Eighteen months later, the country is teetering on the brink of an anti-tax rebellion.
Mr Hollande is, according to one polling company, the most disliked president since France switched to presidential politics a half century ago. The far-right National Front is now polling at the same level – 28 per cent – as Mr Hollande’s Parti Socialiste.
Calamity faces the government in municipal and European elections next spring. Even ministers and close advisers are beginning to doubt whether, with three and half years still to go, the Hollande presidency can be saved.
For many months Mr Hollande has staked his credibility on a Canute-like promise that the rising tide of unemployment – a record 3.3 million in September– will be reversed by the end of this year. A raft of new industrial closures and job losses announced this week suggests that that promise can only be kept by a heroic exercise in massaging the official figures.
In the summer, Mr Hollande thought that he had seen a glimmer of light. Growth figures suggested that the French economy was finally recovering from recession. Since then almost everything has gone wrong for him.
His abortive approval of US-French military action to punish the Assad regime in Syria for using chemical weapons was, perhaps unfairly, seen in France as the empty blustering of a weak man wanting to appear strong. His failed intervention on live TV in the case of a 15-year-old Roma girl expelled to Kosovo made him seem clumsy and foolish.
The so-called “red bonnet” revolution in Brittany in the last two weeks sums up Mr Hollande’s dilemma and the stumbling performance of his government. The protests have been provoked, nominally, by a green tax which was created by former President Nicolas Sarkozy. It was fuelled by anger at the collapse of the Breton cheap food processing industry.
Neither can be directly blamed on Mr Hollande. The protests threaten to turn, nonetheless, into a nationwide rebellion against steep rises in both unemployment and taxes since Mr Hollande came to power in May last year.
The problem is not the much-publicised, proposed super-tax on multi-millionaires but a series of tax rises now hitting middle income households. Some were actually introduced by his predecessor, Mr Sarkozy in an attempt to slash the French budget deficit at the height of the eurozone crisis in 2010-11. Others, including a tax on overtime, have been imposed by Mr Hollande’s government.
All have, nonetheless, come to be seen as Mr Hollande’s fault, partly because of poor communication or outright contradictory statements between himself and his prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault.
“The core of the problem is Hollande’s own personality,” said one despairing Socialist party politician. “He wanted to create a kinder, gentler, less frenetic presidency after Sarkozy. Instead, he is often absent when he should have been active or gets involved too late and makes things worse.”
Real purchasing power fell by 0.4 per cent in France last year – the first fall since 1984. This, too, was not Mr Hollande’s fault but has fuelled middle class anger. Fairly or not, pollsters say, the President is seen as pillaging an “active, hard-working” France to reduce the budget deficit without cutting a bloated state apparatus.
Significant cuts in state spending are promised for next year but the government prefers not to boast about something which infuriates its left-wing heartland.
François Miquet-Marty of the Vivavoice polling company says there is a surge in anger amongst people who regard themselves as hard-working but too poor to qualify for either tax privileges or state aid. “They are convinced that they are being made to pay for the lazy, for civil servants, the unemployed and immigrants,” he said.
The red bonnets worn by the Breton protesters make them look like a sea of Leftist revolutionaries. They are potentially more dangerous than that: an eclectic coalition of big farmers, small farmers, small businessmen, truckers and food industry workers. (The red bonnets they wear are a throwback to a 17th century Breton revolt against the tax-collectors of King Louis XIV.)
The initial cause of the protests was a “green” tax which was to have been imposed on lorries using non-toll major roads from January. Four gantries built over dual carriageways to monitor truck movements, at the cost of €1 million each, have been burned or chopped to the ground while the police have looked on.
In an attempt to end the revolt, the government has suspended the lorry tax indefinitely for “review” but has not abolished it. The protesters say that the revolt will continue. Gantries have been attacked this week in the north of France and in the south west.
The real problem with the Breton economy is over-reliance on mass production of cheap food – mostly pork and poultry now under severe competition from Brazil and elsewhere. The abolition of EU export aid for intensely farmed, frozen chickens has produced a cascade of factory closures and job losses. Brussels has also imposed large fines for the pollution of Breton rivers and beaches by the animal slurry from factory farms. The prospect of an “Eco-tax” on lorry movements from Brittany from January was the last straw. The hard core of protesters – and the most violent - are farmers and workers from food-processing plants. The red-bonnet revolt threatens, nonetheless, to provide a dangerous spark which could ignite smouldering, nationwide middle class fury with Mr Hollande.
France has a habit of falling steeply out of love with its leaders. The decline in the President’s popularity – to 26 per cent in one recent poll by BVA - has beaten all records. President Jacques Chirac fell to a 16 per cent approval rating in a poll by another organisation but no leader in the 50 years of the Fifth Republic has become so unpopular so quickly.
In a conversation with British journalists just before his election last spring, Mr Hollande said that he believed that he was uniquely qualified to “pacify” France after the divisive, frenetic presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. He thought that his approach – based on compromise and consultation not confrontation – was essential to prevent a social and political cataclysm as France struggled to recover from the financial crisis of 2007-8 and the Euro crisis of 2009-11.
His failure – although he has more than three years to recover - can partly be blamed on French truculence and selfishness. Everyone wants “change”; no one wants changes which might damage their own interests.
But Mr Hollande’s failure is also a failure of his own ill-defined, well-meaning, chummy “Hollandism”. To the big questions of the times – can France compete and preserve its welfare model in the new global age – Mr Hollande seems to offer only small, technical replies.
Nicolas Sarkozy failed partly because he seemed to have a new vision every month and trampled on the conventions of the office. Mr Hollande projects little sense of vision or destination at all. Even close admirers and supporters fear that he is miscast: not a large or brutal or complicated enough personality to play what has, in any case, become an impossible role: the executive presidency created by, and for, Charles de Gaulle in the late 1950s.
If massaging of the figures fails to relieve the pain of rising unemployment, as promised, by January, Mr Hollande will lose his final shreds of credibility.