Is Hollande’s France in Chaos?

Boldly and in 72-point type the cover of l’Express proclaims “Hollande’s France on the edge of chaos”. Is this journalistic hype or does it reflect a growing reality?

L’Express suggests France is at a Tipping Point

L’Express suggests France is at a Tipping Point

Over the weekend (November 16) road hauliers under the banner of L’Organisation des Transporteurs Routiers Européens set up blockades and traffic slow downs on highways and byways in at least 16 regions of France with the main points of protest shown on this France Info map.

They claimed more than 3,000 heavy trucks converged on points where the eco-tax gantries of the Ecomouv consortium — which has a contract to collect the tax remotely — remain standing. Similar protests are planned over other weekends in November.

(To date says Le Parisien 44 speed cameras and five ecotax gantries on highways have been damaged or destroyed by Ras-le-bol(fed-up and cheesed-off) tax protesters at an estimated cost of between €3.8 and €6.3 million).

Some 15 regions prepare for traffic chaos this weekend as anti eco tax protests spread. (See points on the map)

Some 16 regions prepare for traffic chaos this weekend as anti eco tax protests spread. (See the points on the map and click for the original interactive source.)

French truckers, part of a national protest on Saturday Nov 16, adorned vehicles with banners saying “Hollande Dégage” or Hollande Clear Off – you never had a clue of how to run things”.

French truckers block roads in ecotax protest (Credit tweeterman)

French truckers block roads in ecotax protest (Credit tweeterman)

As the photo below —  posted by a LesManifsBonnet Twitter user — shows two inbound lanes on this unidentified section of French motorway were blocked by eco-tax protesters on Saturday in what Twitter users around the hot spots suggested was a widespread mobilisation.

French truckers out in force against the ecotax (Screen grab Twtter)

French truckers out in force against the ecotax (Screen grab Twitter)

Others demanding the suspended tax be pure and simply abolished implanted a mock-up of the tax gantry outside the Paris offices of the Franco-Italian Ecomouv consortium which has the contract to collect the tax. This picture was posted on Twitter during the course of the Saturday protests.

A mockup  EcoTaxe gantry was setup outside the Paris offices of Ecomouv on Saturday.

A mockup EcoTaxe gantry was setup outside the Paris offices of Ecomouv on Saturday.

Over a period of just a few weeks reports broadcaster TF1 five écotaxe gantries have been put out of action in Brittany.

The latest was set on fire at Lanrodec on the Côtes d’Armor despite government announcing it would postpone introduction of the tax. “Our position is clear, we demand the suppression of the écotaxe in Brittany” said Christian Troadec, the politically non-affliated Mayor of Carhaix and member of the committee organising the Quimper protests.

Below are a selection of reports of undeniably worsening unrest to let you the reader, be the judge on the issue of hype or reality.
According to Express France’s War Veterans Minister Kader Arif has described events as a “Climat presque insurrectionnel“, (a scenario bordering on insurrection).

The magazine’s reporting team, Corinne Lhaïk, Libie Cousteau, Agnès Laurent, Benjamin Sportouch, Tugdual Denis and Eric Mandonnet, write: “François Hollande is piloting an aircraft that no longer responds to the controls …This is not a revolution, but a succession of revolts that threaten to engulf the entire country … The government’s airplane is pitching and yawling, the ground is disappearing from under the president’s feet … the country verges on collapse … At the moment of handing over power on May 15, 2012, the (conservative former president) Nicolas Sarkozy warned his successor: ‘The hardest cross to bear is the comments on the Internet’. Hollande thought his predecessor was exaggerating, but says one socialist source, ‘It’s far worse than that’ and particularly harsh were online comments that followed his speech about Leonarda…” (This refers to the president’s widely criticised and clumsy, indecisive handling of a row that followed the expulsion of an illegal Roma family).

As the left-wing US academic Art Goldhammer, a long-time observer of the French scene notes: “Although I don’t make a habit of reporting on approval polls, which generally contain more noise than information, Hollande’s trend has been so consistently downward, and the depth of his fall has been so profound, that there has to be information in the overall shape of the curve. A new poll has him at 15%. The latest quarter saw GDP shrink by 0.1%. Unemployment is up. The Bonnets Rouges are in the streets. Demonstrators booed the president on his way to the Arc de Triomphe to commemorate Armistice Day (to the dismay of many, who viewed this politicization of the memorial event as an affront to the Republic). And while Paul Krugman rightly notes that the downgrade of French bonds from AA+ to AA is not warranted, this is yet another woe to add to Hollande’s Job-like burden. Eighteen months into his five-year term and he already seems as done as a Thanksgiving turkey.”

Nearly six million people under the age of 25 are without work in the European Union, with jobless rates among the young at close to 60 percent in Spain and Greece.

What has gone wrong?

The video below, published on July 28, 2013, graphically portrays a year of one disaster after another. (It was produced by rightwing opponents of the Socialist-led government, particularly those against the highly unpopular Mariage pour tous legislation, formalising homosexual marriage and adoption):

The video summarises the main “calamities” of François Hollande’s first year as: At 1:06 mins: Florange; at 1:52 mins unemployment; at 2:32 mins Trocadéro clashes; at 4:03 mins the Cahuzac affair; at 5:42 mins Mariage pour tous.

Les Bonnets Rouges posters say "No to tax injustice"

Les Bonnets Rouges posters say “No to tax injustice”

But insists Radio France’s chief political commentator Hubert Huertas, this a media generated ‘Hollande-bashing’ revolt, the numbers on the ground are small and the action is in the hands of groupuscles.

In a recent radio commentary broadcast on many of the state-owned broadcaster’s stations Huertas said: “Faced with a widespread social protest, an untenable economic situation, and extraordinarily low polls, Francois Hollande should resign as soon as possible. That basically is what is implied although in terms a little more nuanced, by French radio, television, newspapers, and the Internet. Hollande-bashing has taken on an entirely new dimension thanks to the bonnets rouges affair. Severe criticism of the president and his policies have been replaced by reports describing a situation midway between disaster and insurgency. Le Figaro for instance speculated on the likelihood of a convergence by sundry protest movements and in its lead article described the scene as one where the Breton revolt could spread right across France. Yesterday the same newspaper noted a confidential report published by the satirical weekly Canard Enchaîné by the préfets (or prefects who are the eyes and ears of the government) who observed that “a state of anger and frustration” existed among the public throughout France, a report widely echoed by radio and TV broadcasters. On the same day the magazine L’Express (he wrote Le Point in error) put the president on its cover under the headline: Hollande au bord du chaos — Hollande on the edge of chaos … The gloomy prognostications about government are based on hard facts.

“Yes discontent is widespread and varied, the team running the country is rickety, the President does not show any sense that he is a captain in control of his ship, the economic situation is not good even though (Finance Minister) Pierre Moscovici insists on claiming otherwise. There is a heavy sense of unease. This is likely to result in major losses by the Left in both nationwide local elections and the European parliament elections next year. But are we really witnessing the climax of a collapse? Where then are the huge, stunning crowds of protesters on the streets? Unless I am mistaken the largest demo held in Quimper brought out 30,000 people, is that the tide of the century? How many booed the president on the Champs Elysees at Armistice day? A 100? How many people have been involved in commando raids destroying speed radars? Ten? How many trucks have taken part in escargots (or traffic disruption go-slows)? Some. How many footballers went on strike against the 75% tax? None. How many teachers went on strike in the schools against (Education minister) Peillon’s reforms ? 25% across all France.

“So the reality is, there is a political crisis, but there is also a campaign, and a lot of fantasy, being played out and relayed by the media: involving plenty of talk of revolution. Well we will soon find out. If Holland is still there next month, which is likely, it will show that parts of France are projecting their wishful thinking, and that the media is following suit, taking the shivers running down people’s spines as real information.”

The extracts that follow are from a variety of sources commenting on the current wave of protest in a France described as being a “social tinderbox”.

Writing in the London-based Daily Telegraph Ambrose Evans-Pritchard says: “Le Figaro said loss of confidence in the French government is turning dangerous, citing a confidential report based on surveys by “prefects” in each of the 101 departments. “All across the country, the prefects described the same picture of a society that is angry, exasperated and on edge. A mix of latent discontent and resignation is being expressed through sudden eruptions of fury, almost spontaneously,” said the document. The report warned that people were no longer venting their feelings within normal social structures. Increasing numbers are questioning the “legitimacy” of taxes …The business lobby Medef has also begun to talk of a “crisis of authority” bordering on revolt…”

A secret document leaked to Le Figaro newspaper explains why President François Hollande caves in to the slightest sign of street protest reports the Irish Times.

“ ‘Throughout [French] territory . . . society is in the grip of tension, exasperation and anger,’ says the ministry of the interior’s monthly summary of reports from 101 prefects, dated October 25th. The corps of prefects was established by Napoleon in 1800 to be the central government’s eyes and ears in the provinces. The prefects are graduates of the elite École Nationale d’Administration and are considered neutral public servants. The monthly reports are usually couched in careful, and sanitised language, which makes the blatant warning to the Interior Minister and President all the more alarming. ‘The legitimacy of tax’ is now widely questioned, it notes. ‘This mix of latent discontent and resignation erupts through sudden bouts of anger, almost spontaneous, and not within structured social movements …’

“The publication of excerpts of the report coincides with the rise of at least a dozen protest movements, many with animal names including chicks, turkeys, bees, sheep, dodos and storks. There are also red, green and orange bonnets, and ‘the sacrificed’, who oppose a scheduled VAT increase next January 1st. ‘Taxation has become the principal engine of opposition to the government,’ the report says. It speaks of the ‘painful’ climate in France, of ‘a feeling of deep despondency that prevents people hoping for a better future… ‘France is on the verge of insurrection,’ the centre right leader François Bayrou said repeatedly on breakfast radio. ‘We’re going from anger towards violence,’ said the former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.”

Les Bonnets Rouges symbol of a spreading malaise

Les Bonnets Rouges symbol of a spreading malaise

As Hubert Huertas notes above there has also been widespread protest at government-introduced school reform which will see an end to the current day off on Wednesdays.

On her blog Victoria Ferauge traces the religious origins of this tradition: “Perhaps you’ve followed some of the strident debates here in France over whether or not commerce in the Hexagon should be allowed to open on Sunday. Yes, Sunday as a ‘day of rest’ is something that is taken very seriously here and is a matter of national debate on the Left and the Right…but there is another day of the week that is a bit particular here and that’s Wednesday. What makes mercredi different in the Hexagon? Well a lot of kids here don’t go to school that day or only go for half a day…In the early days I was very curious as to why exactly children got Wednesdays off. The answer varied depending on who I asked. My secular friends … would just look at me like I was an idiot and answer, ‘Of course children can’t go to school five days in a row. It’s too much for them. For their general health and overall well-being, they must have a break’…I got a very different answer from my fellow Catholic friends. ” ‘Oh,’ they said, ‘It’s so children can go to catechism that day.’ So where did this custom come from? Turns out that my fellow Catholics were basically correct, only the original day set aside for religious instruction was Thursday…Article 2 of the law of March 28, 1882 on the secularization of the public school called for ‘the primary schools to liberate one day a week’ in order to accommodate parents who wished to have their children attend ‘religious instruction outside the school.’ In 1972 the only thing that changed in this arrangement was that the state moved the day off to Wednesday. In any case it didn’t make much difference for most families at that time. Clearly, the organization of school hours has an impact on families today. It favors the traditional family and accommodates religious practices. It encourages part-time work for women or work in sectors where women are the majority like primary education or secretarial work… Like the rules about Sunday being a day of rest, what was once a custom grounded in religion has been continued for reasons that are ostensibly secular…”

In line with this concern CNA Daily News reported November 12 on why the million who marched for marriage are still angry and now want to know if their children are being indoctrinated by school curricula.

“A French movement dedicated to the understanding of marriage as an institution between a man and a woman has assembled a large coalition that respects all persons, regardless of political affiliation or sexuality. The question of marriage is “not a question of religion, faith, political opinion; it’s a question of life,” Ludovine de La Rochère, president and founder of La Manif Pour Tous, said in a Nov. 1 interview with CNA. In defining marriage for society, she added, “the question is not homosexuality: it is the reality of marriage and filiation of children.” La Manif Pour Tous, which translates as “The Demonstration for Everyone” began in late 2012 when French President Francois Hollande announced that his government would pursue the redefinition of marriage to include both same-sex and opposite-sex partners. “At the time, France also had civil unions open to all couples regardless of sex… The largest demonstration was held March 24, 2013, Rochère said, with “at least 1 million” people marching between 3 different locations in Paris alone. Simultaneous marches were held elsewhere across France, she added…However, the French government and media have both tried to act “as if we never existed,” Rochère said… She added that since the March protest, the French media has not reported on La Manif Pour Tous’ other events, and has labeled the movement as “homophobic” and “religious,” despite its broad and diverse support – even among the gay community in France … Between February and April, both the French Senate and National Assembly approved legislation redefining marriage and permitting adoption by same-sex couples. The redefinition of marriage went into effect May 18 …Since the law has passed, she said, parents across the country have been organizing in their communities “to exercise their parental rights” to know what is being taught to their children about marriage, sexuality, and gender.”

Les bonnets rouges  with the flag of Brittany

Les bonnets rouges with the flag of Brittany

On Nov 14 Bloomberg reported on the political fallout from the discontent suggesting France could have a right-of-the-right president within a decade.

“Marine Le Pen, on the threshold of leading her anti-immigrant, anti-European Union National Front party to its biggest triumph ever, says she may be just one electoral cycle from becoming president of France. Seven months before European Parliament elections, polls show the National Front as the country’s most popular party. With Socialist President Francois Hollande failing to reverse the economic slump that began under Nicolas Sarkozy, Le Pen says disillusionment is driving public opinion her way. Her message: too many foreigners, excessive forbearance of Muslims, EU austerity, an overvalued euro, free trade and a lenient penal system are ruining France…”

The day after the Armistice Day protests President Hollande hit back at his critics.

“Speaking after talks with fellow European leaders on youth unemployment, Hollande robustly denounced the protestors who had subjected him to an unprecedented chorus of boos during Monday’s sombre commemorations for France’s dead in two World Wars and other conflicts. ‘These outrages, these insults issued during this ceremony dishonour those who made them,’ Hollande said before defending the spending cuts he has been forced to make under pressure from the European Union. ” ‘For the last 18 months, the efforts I have asked of the French people have been to put the public accounts, which were in a mess, in order, to strengthen our competitiveness and improve training and education,’ he said. ” ‘These efforts have been difficult but they are unavoidable and if I had not undertaken them, where would our country be today?’ ” AFP reports.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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