'The core of the problem is Hollande’s own personality': France's President clings to the last of his credibility

 

Paris

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. 

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
peopleJonathan Ross has got a left-field suggestion to replace Clarkson
News
Johnny Depp is perhaps best known for his role as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
peopleBut how did he break it?
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
Sport
footballDoes Hodgson's England team have an identity yet?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
Travel
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
News
news
News
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
media
News
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
people
Voices
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
News
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss