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A selection of significant news stories from France
A short overview of some of the most important economic and political issues making the headlines in France today.
In 2015, France is going through hard times.
Following recent scandals across the political spectrum, notably concerning tax evasion and illicit political funding, the reputation of France's leaders has never been so low. Surfing on a wave of public discontent, the far-right National Front party sees itself marching towards big gains in forthcoming elections – a prospect that fills most French people with alarm. Few people in France have a rosy view of where the country is going.

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Some stories making
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15 Jan 2015

See Is France a safe place to visit in 2015 ?

7 January 2015 :  

Islamist fanatics target French satirical magazine

This morning a small band of fanatical Islamist terrorists murdered 12 people and seriously wounded 8 more at the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly). The attack was prepared with military precision, to coincide with the magazine's weekly editorial meeting. Gunmen burst into the meeting, shooting all those present, and killing two policemen assigned to protection duty at the magazine, which has received many threats.
 Among the dead were the magazine's editor Stephane Charbonnier, and three more of France's best-loved political cartoonists, notably Wolinski and Cabu, whose cartoons have been gracing the pages of many French magazines and newspapers for half a century.
  Charlie Hebdo has turned its biting satire on politicians, famous people and religious extremism of all kinds, and was known as a magazine that would make no concessions to threats ior intimidation.  Since 2011, the magazine's offices had been under police protection since a firebomb attack which followed publication of cartoons of Mohammed. It made no concessions to business either, and just managed to survive  without advertising.
  On leaving the building, one of the assailants called out "We have killed Charlie Hebdo". Nothing could be further from the truth. The attack on the magazine has united the whole of France, and brought condemnation from around the world, including from many prominent Muslims. The ideals that the magazine strove to uphold – freedom of speech, freedom of opinion, freedom of the press, and the right to satire – have been strengthened, not cowed into submission; and Charlie's irreverent cartoons have had worldwide TV and internet coverage in a way that was unthinkable a day before.
 

9 December 2014 :  

Are the first winds of change beginning to blow?

Prime Minister Manuel Valls has strongly defended the first package of economic reforms announced by economy minister Emmanuel Macron.
   Macron has announced the first steps to free up sectors of the French economy currently burdened by restrictive practices and corporate interests. First targets include the legal sector, which includes a number of France's "regulated professions", including bailiffs and notaires.



 (Continued below)
 
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Winds of change? continued
   Another plan is to do away with the public sector monopoly on intercity and regional bus routes. At present, all bus services in France are run either by local or regional authorities, or by the French railways. Unlike other countries, France has no private long-distance coach services other than those between France and foreign destinations. French transport operator Transdev has already announced plans to set up bus services across France, notably on high-traffic routes and on routes poorly served by rail services.
   The most discussed measure of the first reform package is the plan to free up Sunday opening for shops in France, and allow some shops to open for up to 12 Sundays per year, instead of the current 5.  Public opinion polls show that up to two thirds of people in France want shops to be able to open on Sundays; but timid as it is,  the plan remains hotly contested by some trade unions and by many on the left of Valls's own Socialist party.   There is likely to be plenty of lively action in France over the coming months, as new plans are rolled out to "modernise the French economy".  For decades governments have preferred to back down for the sake of peace and quiet, rather than push through reforms that might run up against certain vested interests; and until this year, most lobbies in France knew that if you protested enough, the government would back down. Even within the last 3 months, protests by lorry drivers and Breton farmers have buried a government plan to establish a tax on HGVs based on tracking their use of the highway network.....  even though abandoning the plan will cost the government up to a billion euros.
   So this time, is there really a wind of change blowing across France? Valls and Macron are not going to have an easy time. Decried on the right as "inadequate half measures", the economic reform plans are also being hotly contested as an abandonment of France's great "acquired social rights" by the left wing of  Valls's own Socialist party, and by their "allies" on the left.  This story will run for some time.
   

26 August 2014 :  

And another new French government is announced

The new French Government, the second Valls administration, is a team largely reduced to faithful supporters of president François Hollande. The three left-wing ministers from the first Valls government, Economics and industry secretary Arnaud Montebourg, Education seretary Benoit Hamon, and culture secretary Aurélie Filipetti, who had repeatedly criticised their own government's timid reforms and "austerity" measures, are out. 
    While many Hollande supporters were calling for a broad-based team, the Greens have not returned to the government, and centre right politicians who were invited to join have refused.  The new team is thus largely a team of moderates and reformers drawn from the ranks of the Socialist party.
    The most notable appointment is that of  Emmanuel Macron, a former merchant banker, 36 years old, and reputed a "social liberal" and one of Hollande's closest economic advisers, who takes over from left-wing Arnaud Montebourg. His nomination is likely to be seen as a red rag to a bull by those on the left wing of the Socialist party.
    The nomination of the new government is unlikely to ensure a smooth future for François Hollande. The President now has an opposition on his right, but also a sizeable parliamentary opposition to his left, made up not just of Communists and Greens, but also of recalcitrant members of his own Socialist party.

1 July 2014 :  

Ex-president Sarkozy detained by anti-corruption investigators

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy was held this morning by anti-corruption investigators, looking into accusations of peddling of influence, or attempts to pervert the course of justice. Sarkozy is one of several leading figures called in for questioning, others including senior French judges. The direct charges arise from evidence gathered during the tapping of Sarkozy's mobile phone during investigations into the Bettencourt affair.  Click for more on ex-President Sarkozy

2 June 2014 :  

Hollande regional reform plan raises many hackles

 France on its own has 41% of all the local administrative structures in the whole of the European Union - 28 countries. With its multiple layers of local administration, with services often needlessly duplicating each other, territorial governance in France has become a nightmare, but one that successive governments have singularly failed to address.
  Now at last President Hollande has launched the first stage of the process, reducing the number of regions from 22 to 14. A blueprint has been put forward, but the battles, it seems, are only just beginning. Polls taken since the announcement show that up to two thirds of respondents are dissatisfied with the plan.
   The official justification for the reform - apart from saving money -  has been to cut France up into 14 large regions that can hold their own in size and weight as European regions on a par with the large federal Länder of Germany – as if size were the major factor to be considered.  Cultures, regional identities and other logical affinities have not been taken into account, to the fury of many parts of regional France.
   One of the eight existing regions whose identity has been preserved intact is the Pays de la Loire region – in spite of the fact that this region is an entirely artificial construct, dating from the 1970s, that has no historic or cultural basis; it is however the region of recent Socialist prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. On the other hand the region's capital city is Nantes, in the Loire Atlantique department, a city that was once the capital of Brittany.  .A recent poll for French television showed that 63% of the inhabitants of the Loire Atlantique wanted their department to be reunited with Brittany, and that people in Brittany are also largely in favour of uniting with the Loire Atlantique department. But in spite of this consensus, the new regional plan contains nothing on this issue.   Next door to Pays de la Loire, the new plan proposes the creation of a mega-region combining three current regions, Centre, Limousin and Poitou-Charentes – a new region that would stretch from Dreux, 40 miles south of Rouen, to Montlieu, 20 miles north of Bordeaux. The president of the Charentes Maritime department, conservative Dominique Bussereau, is among many people who have strongly condemned the plan, reminding the government that local voters and the local tourist industry in the Charentes want to join up with Aquitaine.  Centrist party leader François Bayrou called the plan "baroque, improvised and scrappy, without any logic" .
  Even some Socialist regional presidents have condemned the new plan, with the president of the Auvergne region ridiculing the idea of a region stretching from the borders of the Lot, in southwest France, to Mont Blanc on the Italian border – a distance by road of 580 km and 7 hours' drive. As for the Greens, who are allied with the Socialists in many local government structures, one of their parliamentarians, François de Rugy, described the plan as "incoherent, illegible and injustifiable."
  There will be plenty of discussion in the coming weeks, and maybe some changes to the current proposal. But the opportunity to redraw the regional map of France from scratch, on the most coherent lines, seems to have been missed.
   As for the suppression of the next tier of local government in France, the departments, that has been put off..... until 2020.


26 May 2014 :  

Far right National Front wins Euro Elections

 Many people in France are stunned. France's far right xenophobic National Front has emerged as the leading political force in France, if the results of Sunday's European elections are to be taken as a yardstick.
  Fortunately however, they are not a genuine view of the views of the majority of French voters – which is a cause for some relief, but not for complacency.
   The National Front took 25% of the vote, on a turnout of 43% – meaning that about one French elector out of ten actually cast a vote for the far right. It is not as if the majority of the French population had voted for a party that is anti-Europe, anti-immigration, anti-establishment; they did not. But more people voted for this party of demagogues and dreamers, than for any other French political party. And that is serious.
   Like Britain's UKIP, the French National Front has cashed in on popular resentment against Europe, elitism and cronyism, falling living standards, and – in France's case – endemic unemployment, by offering voters easy scapegoats for all their ills. Europe, immigrants, the Euro, bankers, trade unions.....  The National Front makes out that France could emerge from its ills by a solution of turning the clock back to an imaginary past golden age, a France with no immigration and full employment, with French Francs again, not Euros, great social services and low taxes.
   Sadly, there is a sizeable minority of the French population that is gullible enough to believe the mellifluous words of the National Front's sophisticated media machine, and its smiling leader Marine le Pen. But they remain a minority. The large majority of French voters want nothing to do with the far right.
    French and international media have been having a frenzy reporting the emergence of the National Front as France's "most popular party"; but the FN's performance should be seen in its historic context. France has a long history of protest votes: Over the past half century, up to a third of France's voters have regularly voted for extremist parties, of the left or the right. There has been no surge to the extreme in 2014; what has changed is the nature of that vote.
    All in all, 37% of votes went to far left or far right parties in the 2014 European elections, on a turnout of 43% : that's 15.9% of the total electorate voting for an extremist party.
    Back in 1979, for the first ever elections to the European parliament, far-right and far-left parties took 26.3% of the vote between them - on a turnout of 60% : that's 15.6% of French voters voting for an extremist party.  A virtually identical score.
    The big difference lies in the fact that in 1979, 23% of votes went to parties to the left of the socialists (Communist party and other far left), and 1% to the far right. In 2014, 8% went to the far left, and 29% to the far right, on a far smaller turnout.
    Protest votes tend to do better when voter turnout is lower.
    Yet protest votes are real votes, and France's mainstream parties are right to be seriously worried by this latest result – especially François Holland's governing Socialist Party, whose share of the popular vote fell to an unprecedented low of 14%

31st March 2014 :  

6.p.m.
French PM Ayrault has resigned. He will be replaced by Manuel Valls, the Spanish-born interior minister who is the most popular political figure in France today. Valls is known as a no-nonsense centre-left social democrat, and is not popular with the hard left. For the moderate wing of the French Socialist Party, Valls is seen as a moderniser. He carries the aspirations of the centre left in the same way as Tony Blair when he first took over Britain's Labour Party; but in the very divided world of French socialism, he will not have Blair's freedom of action - even if Hollande keeps him on a very long leash. Many will be pinning their hopes on him; but two years ago they pinned them on Hollande.  It will take more than just Valls's popularity to put France back on the rails.

French Socialists routed in local elections

French voters have delivered a resounding slap in the face to President François Hollande's ruling Socialist party. Just two years after Hollande was elected to the presidency on a wave of enthusiasm, the outcome of the election confirms the extent of his fall from grace.
   The Socialists have lost control of town halls in over 150 towns and cities of over 9,000 inhabitants, and the big winner is the conservative UMP party. The UMP and their allies have taken control of a number of large cities and regional capitals, including Toulouse, Saint Etienne, Reims and Caen; but most emblematic was the conservative victory in Limoges, which has had a socialist or left-wing town hall since 1912 – over 100 years.
   The Socialists managed one miracle... taking Lourdes; and they achieved a symbolic victory by holding on to the Paris town hall. They also held on to Strasbourg, Lyon and Lille, and won in Avignon, where voters rallied to the Socialists to defeat a strongly placed contender from the far-right National Front.
   However, as much as the Socialists' battering, it is the very relative victory of the National Front that has been making the headlines. France's far-right nationalists have seized power in 14 town halls, mostly in the south, and mostly quite small towns; but the list does include the towns of Béziers, Orange and the Riviera resort of Fréjus, as well as the 7th constituency of Marseilles.
   In one other surprising result, the French Green Party took the town hall in Grenoble from their Socialist allies.
   Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the election is that anyone voted for the Socialists at all; between the two rounds of voting, it was announced that unemployment in France had reached a new record high; and the following day, that the planned deficit reduction campaign is now well off target.
   In the end, the Socialists saved several town halls thanks to popular, well established mayors; but their relative survival was also made easier by the currently  poor image of the main conservative opposition party, the UMP. Over the last decade, the French right has been riven by internal conflicts and embroiled in a number of politico-financial scandals. They also share responsibility, with Hollande's Socialists, for France's current economic woes. The last Conservative government, under president Sarkozy, singularly failed to take the strong measures that were required, to put France's economy back on a sound footing; and voters have not forgotten this.


January 2014 :  

Hollande announces new way forwards

Dogged by record unpopularity, ever-increasing unemployment in France, and by problems in his personal life, President Hollande chose his annual New Year press conference to announce major policy changes, aimed at restoring the competitiveness of the French economy.
   The main reform announced was an end, by 2017, of employers' contributions to the French family allowance scheme, currently set at 5.4%. This has been welcomed by French employers for whom total payroll taxes and contributions currently amount to a massive 42%
    Yet even if they come down to 36.6%, France's payrioll taxes will still be higher, and in many cases far higher, than in other major economies.  
     The phasing out of the family allowance tax has been  – predictably – condemned by the country's unions and by the left-wing partners of Hollande's own government.
     To pay for the reduction of payroll taxes and other measures, Hollande  pledged to cut public spending by 50 billion euros by 2017, though remained evasive on how this will be achieved. He mentioned measures to simplify bureaucracy and streamline France's complex system of local government; but as yet, there is little in the way of concrete commitments.
     The President ruled out any major cuts to France's welfare system.
     In France and abroad, reactions to the President's keynote speech have been relatively muted; while the measures in themselves have on the whole been cautiously welcomed, there is much questioning as to whether Hollande will actually be able to deliver.

November 2013 :  

Another French Revolution?

The climate in France is revolutionary – at least according to commentators in parts of the French media.
Polls show that there is now a general "ras l'bol" (fed-upness) in France with successive governments' inability to solve France's massive problems.  The current government has achieved the remarkable exploit of getting employers and workers out on the street together, complaining of the high level of taxation that is crippling small firms and constantly eroding the purchasing power of those in work or on benefits.
   In Brittany, a relatively poor region and scene of the most virulent recent demonstrations of discontent, protesters have donned red Phrygian caps, the garment symbolically chosen as the mark of Revolutionaries during the first French Revolution, in 1789. And it's not just small business and trade unions that have been complaining. Teachers and other civil servants have been protesting too, about living standards, pensions, new work schedules and underfunding. Very few people in France, it seems, are happy at the moment.
   While a classic "revolution" seems an unlikely scenario, President Hollande surely has plenty more trouble in store. VAT (sales tax) is set to rise in January – a fact that will not go un-noticed.

Analysis ► French tax crisis 2013

French Government in turmoil

October 2013  Beleaguered French President François Hollande's popularity rating has fallen to an all-time low, around 25%, the lowest rating ever obtained by a French President under the Fifth Republic, according to pollsters BVA. Long branded as a ditherer, Hollande is now being described in the French media as nothing short of incompetent.
   In October, the Government was again rocked by dissentions and Presidential U-turns. After hard-line (and popular) Interior Minister ordered the expulsion of a family of illegal Roma immigrants from Kosovo, including teenage Leonarda, plucked by police off a school bus, thousands of high-school students protested in Paris. Torn between defending his minister and pacifying the left wing of his party, Hollande promptly authorised Leonarda's return - but without her family – a compromise that satisfied no-one, not even Leonarda, who declined the offer.
   Then at the end of the month, faced with violent protests by Breton lorry-drivers, the government did another about-turn and announced the suspension of the new Ecotax on HGVs (trucks). This U-Turn further damaged the Socialists' relations with their coalition partners in government, the Green Party.
   With municipal elections looming in Spring 2014, many on the French left are seriously worried. 


France's Shale Gas Saga

July 2013.  Will Shale gas prospection resume in France in the coming months?
  The question is agitating public opinion in France, and the energy industry in general.  
  Originally authorised by the Sarkozy government,  "fracking" permits were suspended by the incoming Socialist government, as a gesture or goodwill to their Green party allies, and to public opinion, which remains generally uneasy over shale gas prospection. The government applied the often maligned "principle of precaution" to ban shale gas prospection, arguing that the process is too risky. Opponents claim that blasting shale deposits deep down can pollute underground water deposits as well as triggering minor earth tremors.
   But an American oil company, that had begun prospection before the permits were rescinded, is now challenging the ban in the French supreme court, the Constitutional council.
   With the French economy in the doldrums, and French industry and households complaining ever more loudly about high energy costs, the economic argument for fracking is becoming ever harder to resist. French industry is looking with envious eyes at the USA, where shale gas extraction has pushed down energy costs and, by reducing America's energy imports,  is already impacting on the national trade balance.


France in recession

Figures released by the French statistical office INSEE in May 2013 show that France is now officially in recession. The French economy contracted by 0.2% in the last quarter of 2012, and again by 0.2% in the first quarter of 2013.
     The news has been greeted with glum resignation in France, and comes at a very bad time for president François Hollande, whose ratings have slumped to a historic low. Hollande was elected on a promise to turn round the French economy and cut unemployment by the end of 2013, but the prospect of either happening is receding by the month. In order for the French economy to create jobs, economists estimate that a growth rate of +1.2% is needed. At present, that target seems to have vanished over the horizon.
     President Hollande is currently beset by problems, even in his own government. While tensions in the Finance ministry between the social democratic finance minister Pierre Moscovici, and  hard-left "Minister for productive regeneration" Arnaud Montebourg, have been calmed down, Hollande had to sack his Green party Environment minister, Delphine Batho, in July, after she called his cost-cutting plans "bad". 
     The European Union  – while allowing France, pragmatically, a bit more time to get its economy in shape – has called for stronger reforms, including stronger measures on retirement pensions and institutional reform.  Hollande has enacted a number of measures aimed in theory at reviving the economy, but many of these have involved increasing taxes and red tape . It is hard to see how this can help stimulate economic growth, at a time when French business and households are calling for less taxes and less red tape.
     As a nation, France is currently going through one of its bouts of pessimism, and record numberrs of people are leaving the country or thinking of doing so. Magazines report record numbers of young entrepreneurial Frenchmen and women fleeing in search of more opportunities and a more inspiring environment in other countries, notably Canada, Switzerland, the USA and the UK.  Few people in France currently see their country as a land of opportunity, and as long as this continues, the future will not look good. The official French analysis suggests that France will return to growth later this year; but in recent months, official growth predictions have tended to be over-optimistic


French President's ratings plummet

April 2013.   When French voters elected a new president in 2012, they did so with great hopes; Hollande promised to solve the country's economic troubles, reduce deficits and above all reduce the country's endemic unemployment. Almost a year later, economic problems seem as great as ever, the deficits are still stubbonly high, and unemployment has reached new heights. And President Hollande's popularity ratings have fallen faster than that of any other newly elected French president.
   And as if the economic news was not bad enough, Hollande has alienated the left wing of his own party, by taking measures to liberalise some of France's arcane labour laws, and failing to intervene to prevent planned factory closures and relocations, as French industry loses out against competition from abroad. At the same time, he has further angered the conservative opposition, by lowering the retirement age for some categories of workers - while others are having to work longer - and failing to deliver the improvements that he pormised voters before the election.
   In addition, after promising an to have an irreproachably clean government, Hollande has now had to sack his former Minister for the Budget, Jerome Cahuzac, who, after many months of denial, finally admitted to possessing secret undeclared bank accounts in Switzerland and Singapore, with more than half a million Euros deposited in them, out of sight of the French tax authorities. Hollande's latest reaction is to suggest obliging all French government ministers to publicly declare a list of all their financial and non-financial capital assets, an idea that has met with serious disapproval not just from the conservative opposition, but even from some senior ministers in his own government.
   Unfortunately in France, there is now a very serious crisis of confidence between ordinary French people and their politicians. To remedy the situation, many major changes have been proposed, such as limiting the number of elected positions that politicians can hold at the same time, or the number of times they can stand for reelection. According to a recent opinion poll, 93% of French people are in favour of limiting the number of elected functions (parliamentarian, mayor, regional councillor, county councillor, etc) that a politician can hold down at the same time; but given that a majority of French elected representatives have a vested interested in keeping the status-quo, change in this matter, as in many other matters in France, is very hard to engineer. Yet paradoxically, if Hollande's popularity falls much further, he may become just the person to actually push through some needed reforms such as this one. A president who sees he has no chance of reelection at the end of his first term, is more likely to push for unpopular reforms than one who will do anything not to displease his own party, and the voters in general.

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