The Roundabouts of French Election(s)
An old and rather cruel joke holds that the best sign of a successful local Mayor in France is the number of impeccably landscaped traffic roundabouts he has managed to install in or around his town or village.
Indeed there are reported to be more than 40,000 ornately-decorated rondpoints in France each costing an average of one million euros and, according to the weekly magazine Le Point, “for purposes that are rarely evident”.
So popular and ingrained are these manifestations of local authority success that even tiny hamlets in la France profonde which can’t stretch to the full top-of-the-range million euro job, will happily create one with street marking paint at whatever appropriate crossroads they can find.
Anyone travelling around the French countryside since last summer will undoubtedly have noticed rampant construction works on hundreds of minor roads, normally just as these pass through small villages and towns. This and mobile traffic lights seemingly holding up vehicles for hours on non-descript back-roads, are all a sure sign that nationwide local elections, held every 6 years, are looming as indeed they are. They will take place in two rounds on March 23 and 30, 2014.
Hence the Mayors and Councillors of the 36,380 local authorities (in Paris, Lyon and Marseilles the three most populous cities, elections are on a ward basis) around France are hard at work ensuring their voters are physically confronted by beneficial works. This despite a level of opposition by local residents angered that in these times of economic restraint and recession, local taxes appear to be ever-rising to pay for all these vote catching activities. Adding to their dismay are the innumerable subventions on their utility bills for contested “green” renewable energy feed-in tariffs, renewal of water supply pipes, more eco-centric refuse collection, work on Electricite de France’s electricity supply grid, and similar.
But now just 50 days ahead of nationwide local elections Le Point has published a dossier (Issue 2158 not online) setting out what it claims to be an inventory of the “delirium of public expenditure” that affects France despite unremitting pressure from the European Commission for France to restructure and cutback the state. It says its report aims to help Socialist President François Hollande better implement his recently promised strict diet for government spending.
Quoting the Cour des Comptes or Audit Court (the independent auditor of state expenditure) the magazine’s writers Michel Revol and Herve Denyons claim to have unmasked “widespread nepotism, wastage of ratepayer taxes and inefficient use of regional and local authority funds” in many of the local authorities where grassroots officials are often re-elected uncontested decade after decade, building up their own power bases, interest groups and political fiefdoms.
It says that in 2001 twenty French communes set up agglos (an abbreviation for Agglomération or rationalised centralised services for the towns, villages and hamlets surrounding a larger urban centre) designed to reap the rewards of economies of scale and reductions in payrolls by eliminating duplicated roles. The payrolls of these new agglos totalled 30 million euros at the time, the magazine reports, but instead of cuts they continued to hire and by 2007 their payrolls totalled 37 million euros. Meanwhile the combined agglo and core municipal payroll in 2007 totalled 44 million euros, “well short of the expected economies…”
Following an Audit Court report critical of Carcassonne, Le Point investigated, reporting that in 2001 the payroll of the 23 communes which existed before Carcassonne absorbed their services under the agglo was 20 million euros. In 2007 the payroll of the additional administrative layer required for the agglo was 7 million euros while in 2007 the total payroll for the agglo headquartered in Carcassonne and of the 23 communes now covered by it, totalled 44 million euros…!
According to the Audit Court report delivered in 2013: “The establishment of the communauté d’Agglomération (the wider regional administration) of Caracassonne did not translate into a reduction in the council payroll, instead the number of employees has increased by 80 over the past 10 years … the hours worked and days off are favourable to staff because the number of hours theoretically worked each year is 1,541 per employee or 66 hours less than the legal minimum requirement. Absenteeism is higher than the national average…”
Le Point goes on to report details about which local political barons oppose recently unveiled government plans to reduce the number of devolved administrative regions in France from the current 22 to 15 as part of efforts to slim the national deficit.
This grand plan, which it dubs mariage pour tous -- an ironic nod to the Socialist government’s widely-contested same-sex marriage bill — aims to bring to the church altar and for better or for worse, 13 adjoining regions where economies of scale would generate budget savings.
Of these the regions Nord and Picardie, Limousin and Aquitaine are strongly opposed to any marriage never mind concubinage. Lorraine and Alsace, Bourgogne and France Comte, Basse Normandie and Haute Normandie, Bretagne and Pays de Loire and Poitou Charantes are all happy however to exchange wedding bands or civil formalities subject to certain conditions.
Untouched by the planned reforms are Ille-de-France, Champagne-Ardenne, Centre, Auvergene, Rhone Alpes, Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur, Corse, Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrenees.
Le Point also details how sick pay reforms that saw a 43% reduction in public sector absenteeism nationwide under former president Nicolas Sarkozy, were abolished by the current government at a cost in 2013 of 157 million euros. this was financed by the private sector which has introduced a three-day no-pay clause before sickpay is attributed.
On February 2 and for the second Sunday running, Paris streets were filled with tens of thousands of protesters angered by various aspects of government policies. The latest march was against same-sex marriage, a law which came into force last year but which has remained a focus of constant right wing protest ever since led by Roman Catholic church groups but also including Muslim organisations opposed to gay marriage.
As some 80,000 demonstrators marched in orderly fashion in Paris and Lyon backed by similar supportive marches in Madrid and Brussels, France’s Interior Minister, Manuel Valls warned that a French Tea Party was emerging and expressed his concern at the “intolerance” and disrespect shown for France’s democratic institutions.
His remarks came in an interview with Journal du Dimanche where Valls said the country was “tormented by the dark forces of division”. He was especially critical of the Day of Wrath demonstration a week earlier which demanded the resignation of the head-of-state, François Hollande three years before his term ends.
He described this protest as a march by the antis: “anti-elite, anti-government, anti-tax, anti-parliament, anti-media,” and even a veiled nod to Nazism as, he added, it had been especially, “anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic…in truth simply anti-Republican.”
It is against a backdrop of this cauldron of discontent that the five main political groupings go into the local election hoping to fight on local issues in which they on the whole have a strong record.
The incumbent Socialists are widely expected to take a pummelling at the hands of the centre-right and right-of-right parties while there is much concern over how well Marine le Pens’ Front National (FN) is likely to do.
Opinion polls suggest that while FN could well become the most voted party in France in the May 2014 European Parliamentary elections – on the back of an undiminished wave of political discontent with Hollande’s presidency (he currently enjoys the lowest popularity ratings in the history of the Vth republic) — it faces a number of organisational problems in the 2014 municipal elections.
According to Jocelyn Evans Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds in the UK and Gilles Ivaldi a CNRS researcher in political science at the University of Nice writing on the University of Nottingham School of Politics blog,: “The FN is hoping to field candidates in about 500 municipalities. This would represent a significant improvement on the 2008 election, where the party ran lists in just 78 cities with more than 3,500 inhabitants, polling an average 5.5 per cent of the vote where present, and winning a mere 59 seats out of a possible 90,000… There has also been a shift in polling. Not for the first time, as an election draws near, Marine Le Pen and the FN’s support has begun to founder. Just as 2011 polls predicting a possible run-off place in the Presidentials dropped away in 2012, so the high-tide of public opinion in 2013 has started to falter, with drops of 4-5% in this month’s polls from TNS-SOFRES, OpinionWay and Ipsos. Similarly, Marine Le Pen’s strategy of modernization seems to have run out of steam. Over two-thirds still regard the FN as a ‘far right’ party, while another 59 per cent consider it to be ‘dangerous for democracy’ (see Figure 2). It fares little better in its perceived capacity to govern big cities.”
The authors go on to suggest that a number of issues related to grassroots organisation, and shortage of suitable well vetted candidates is hampering the party’s hoped for breakthrough in the March election.
Story: Ken Pottinger
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