Playtime will soon be over. A few weeks remain before French children return to school after their summer holiday. Parents perform the annual ritual of buying books and pencils in what the French call the rentrée scolaire and it’s obsessively discussed across French TV and radio. It is a homecoming too for France’s deputies who return to parliament tomorrow – and for President François Hollande, who faces a timetable dominated worringly by a flat-lining economy and consistently low popularity ratings. Question: how will the President dress up these dismal figures faced with predictably fierce criticism?
Here is a flavour of what will be on the agenda in the next few months.
Last week saw anaemic growth for the Eurozone as a whole of just +0.3%. For France, the bloc’s second largest economy, it was a humiliating 0 – no growth at all in the second quarter, despite predictions of +0.3%, and a marked fall from the remarkable +0.7% in the months from January to March. Household consumption and business investment and confidence have both slowed, despite measures such as the eurozone-wide programme of quantative easing to stimulate businesses earlier this year.
Ministers will be hoping their big package of measures – the loi Macron – named after economy minister Emmanuelle Macron to liberalise the economy, including Sunday opening hours in tourist areas and cut red tape, will bring more positive figures, but this is still some way off from fruition.
Crucially, the flat-lining of the economy makes any reduction in France’s unemployment rate – currently 10.3% – and its sizeable deficit – due to its immense public sector – all the more difficult.
France is predicting growth of just 1% this year, and 1.6% in 2016, as Finance Minister Michel Sapin remains adamant such growth aspirations can be achieved. Compare that to the UK’s forecast this year of 2.5% growth, and Germany’s 1.7%. Sapin said the government wouldn’t waver from measures such as tax cuts for businesses, which have divided parliament.
France’s economy, along with the rest of Europe, is being buoyed by the 6-year low in the cost of fuel, but this has yet to filter down to weak domestic demand. One analyst says he expects the labour market to gradually stabilise and confidence to be reinforced in the coming months, but added there is little prospect of growth of more than one per-cent this year.
Speaking to a local Corsican newspaper today while on holiday, former President and Republican Party hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy went on the offensive in a strategically explosive interview just a day before politicians return from their break. He criticised Hollande and prime minister Manuel Valls, accusing them of dishonesty. He said: “François Hollande and Manuel Valls have said to us for three years that things are getting better, that unemployment is going to fall, that growth is going to return, that the French people are going to pay less in taxes. Three years that they’ve been wrong or have been lying to the French people.”
He also took a swipe at Valls’ latest idea of cutting waste and France’s dreaded bureaucracy – to reduce the number of the country’s regions from 22 to 13. He said such a measure “destroys what we have built”. Seeing himself once again as President material, he commented on Russia and France’s pork crisis in Brittany, an ongoing row over unfair pricing for farmers.
It’s worth remembering that France’s delicate recovery matters so much to François Hollande that he has gambled his candidacy for the Socialist party in the 2017 presidential race, affirming that he will step down if unemployment doesn’t fall sufficiently before then. Throughout his presidency, Hollande has consistently punctuated the publication of economic indicators by reiterating the mantra of an economic recovery, but one which is all too weak. It has been clear for some time that many French people have become impatient with this unpopular, repetitive president.
Presidential elections will fall in spring 2017, but the next test for the ruling Socialist government will be regional elections in December, in which Marine Le Pen will likely again make large waves. They will be pivotal in deciding the balance of power and predicting leaders in the 2017 race for the Elysée. Expect many tens of addresses and hours of train journeys crossing the country to talk directly to the French electorate.
At tomorrow’s meeting of ministers, Hollande will be quick to appoint a new Work Minister – a post seen as key in combatting unemployment – as incumbent François Rebsamen leaves the post to focus on his mayorship of Dijon. In the coming weeks, the fight against terrorism and starting to prepare the final budget of the President’s term will be the most important themes.
If François Hollande can’t cut it for a domestic audience, it will be on the international stage that he will be wishing to gain recognition. Paris will play host to the United Nations Climate Change conference at the beginning of December. François Hollande is hoping for decisive action on the environmental front to be a poignant moment of his quinquennat, or five-year term in office. A legally-binding reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to limit an increase in global temperatures is the key goal of this meeting.
A month after historical talks between the UN and Iran over its nuclear activities concluded with a deal, and France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius visit to Tehran, Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani was last month handed an invitation to visit Paris this November. Whilst there is some caution as to the nature of the country’s thawing relationship with the West, what is more assured is the attempt to restart trade with the isolated Middle Eastern state. François Hollande will be hoping to promote France’s biggest car brands – Renault, Peugeot and Citroen – as Iran’s economy begins the slow process of opening up.
The migrant crisis in Calais has surprisingly received far less mainstream media coverage in France than you would expect. With finger pointing on either side of the Channel, French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve will meet with his opposite number Teresa May on Thursday, even touring the Eurotunnel, to discuss the migrant crisis, which has seen most recent numbers of migrants dwindle – temporarily or not. A deal will be signed to increase security in the Calais port area, as well as discussing people trafficking and humanitarian efforts.
The President’s summer has largely been occupied by the many late-night emergency meetings which brought Greece back from the brink of Grexit and European economic chaos. Negotiating with hardline Angela Merkel and sticking up for Greek PM Alexis Tsipras, Hollande has long been keeping a close eye on European affairs, as he argues for an ever closer currency union between the 19 Eurozone members.
With all of this, there are now only 20 months to the presidential election. One adviser in the Elysée said: “This is a very important phase in the five-year term.”
Mistakes at this point in the political game simply cannot be made.