Annus Horribilus

AyraultThe Holland administration has had, without doubt, a thoroughly horrible 2013.

Indeed, the year of the snake was poised to be the year of all the dangers, with an uncertain economic picture, general social unrest, elections looming the following year, and a government that would little by little no longer be able to blame its predecessors of the problems the country was facing.

2013 was all of those and much worse. A double-dip recession (not statistically but certainly perceived), increasing unemployment, declining real wages, and a highly sophisticated and effective public campaign by the opposition against rising taxation, building an image of incompetence.

There were however breakthroughs, and indications that the government’s policy choices are perhaps not as clubfooted as an increasing number in France and abroad believe. Is that enough in light of increasing dissatisfaction, record unpopularity of the President and Prime Minister and a government that appears to be doubting itself?

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If Wishes Were Fishes…

President Hollande perhaps on the lookout for a few wishes of his own…then we would all cast nets in the sea.  Perhaps this phrase above all others is on the French government’s mind as they contemplate what 2013 might bring.  It has been called the Year of all the Dangers by even their friends.

And yet the executive in France is in a privileged position, able, if it chooses, to guide political discourse and shape the beginning of the year due to both its constitutional power (it holds a large majority in the National Assembly, a slim relative majority in the Senate, and the majority of large municipal and regional councils) and the unique “Wishes Season” that dominates the month of January.  So what should the government use its wishes for?

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Competing over Competitiveness

And so Louis finally handed in his report.  Mr Gallois, who faced, as I have blogged previously, the difficult decision of what medicine to prescribe to an obviously ill patient, published his report on French competitiveness yesterday.  The report was met with suspicion by trades-union, acclaim by the right, the centre and employers’ associations, and consternation by the government.

Ruled out immediately was the suggestion to pursue research into shale gas – a big no-no for the Greens.  However the key measure – finding some other source of financing the social security system by reducing employers’ and employees’ payroll taxes by 20 and 10 million euros respectively – has no become an unquestioned dogma in French politics.  The question is how to pay for it.  So who will the government stick with the bill? Continue reading

Everybody’s Talking About Louis

Louis Gallois is an interesting character.  A leading figure of the centre left, he has spent most of his career, after a stint behind the scenes in government, leading massive industrial machines: the SNCF national railway operator, and EADS, the aviation giant that owns Airbus.  He also might be the most stereotypically French looking man since General de Gaulle.

This is a man with Socialist sympathies who knows business, particularly international business.  It was therefore with some confidence that the government announced that he would take the role of Investment Commissioner and produce a report on competitiveness in the French economy, which would propose measures that the government would use as a blueprint for reforming the economy.  Now as leaks and rumours seem to be spiralling out of control, the government appears to be backpedaling on the importance of the report and the media is using it to bludgeon the President and Prime Minister.  And it hasn’t even been published yet.  What went wrong, and what should the government do? Continue reading

A weekend by the sea, part three: Plastic Carrots and Paper Sticks

Since their creation as organised movements in the latter half of the 19th century, political parties have depended on a measure of discipline within the ranks to maintain their structure. Whether appointed in smoke filled rooms or elected by powerful union backers or just e membership, the leader’s legitimacy was to be respected and their decisions implemented without question for the good of the party. The American political system, now so dependent on the two party system, used to be a prime example of this trade off: everyone gets to shout, but when the top take the decision, the bottom quietens down.

But something has gone wrong with this system in French politics. The malaise in party discipline can also be seen in the US and the UK. Political parties are struggling to adapt to the new relationship between the base and the leadership. This weekend at La Rochelle however, after an embarrassing defeat in this very town during the legislative elections, the party cadres seem to have recognised that it’s time to reassess the old means of control over the members. Continue reading