France’s Socialists survive another day

France’s Socialists survive another day

There were smiles on the faces of France’s Socialist MPs today. During a time of division, talk of leadership battles and polls that show the party falling behind the right and far right in next year’s presidential elections, you’d think there isn’t much to be happy about on the left of French politics.

Yet in this time of survival for the government, it didn’t come as a surprise that they saw through the defeat of a vote of no confidence on a controversial labour reform bill, seen as too pro-business by some, which has now been fast-tracked through to the Senate.

For governments in France, the number 49.3 is more often than not a sign of desperate times. This part of the constitution allows bills proposed by the government to avoid a vote by French MPs, making it closing to becoming law.

The last time it was used was last year to allow a package of disputed economic reforms, nicknamed the Loi Macron, after Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, to be pushed through parliament.

France’s reformist Economy Minister, Emmanuel Macron

Even yesterday the party was under attack from within, as rebel backbench Socialist MPs put forward a vote of no confidence – a way of putting an end to this constitutional backdoor, before it was narrowly defeated.

It served as a crystallisation of just how difficult it is proving to enact reforms, loosening France’s unwieldy regulation and complex bureaucracy and kickstarting the country’s perpetually ailing economy.

The legislation aims to weaken the power of unions, make employers able to extend working hours beyond 35 hours and make it easier for them to fire and hire workers.

Scenes of tear gas, vandalism and violence on the streets of Paris and several other cities across the country, told a different story. Despite polls showing relatively low membership of worker’s unions – perhaps surprisingly given France’s long history of the worker rising against the rich and powerful elite – the influence of the unions can’t be underestimated.

Their voice may be loud, the scenes of their mobilisation great fodder for journalists, even that doesn’t seem enough to derail this government’s determination to make the economy more flexible and put it on a stable growth footing with unemployment hovering around 10 per cent.

The reform bill has set out to bring a more laissez-faire approach to the labour market, doing away with the current government-central diktat dictating regulation to employees in the form of a nearly four thousand page tome.

France’s labour code

The Loi Travail, or Loi El Khromi – named after the labour minister, will continue through to the Senate next month, on 13th June. It could well be changed before it returns back to the lower house, when the government could once again dodge a bullet by resorting to its 49.3 constitutional back door.

The centre-right Les Républicains party voted against the government, with one of their MPs calling François Hollande’s five-year term as president “beyond all hope”.

Such a tense time for the left means it is open season for electioneering and exposing the Socialist party’s vulnerable position, which rests on Hollande’s promise to grow the economy and bring down unemployment. It’s a pledge which he made last year that only then will allow him to stand for election next year.

But with determination from France’s unions and an increasingly impatient mood for signs of economic prosperity, opposition to the bill means this headache for the French government is far from over.

The Front National’s power struggle

The Front National’s power struggle

Today might be the day the Front National got nearer than it’s ever been to controlling more than a town hall – but not enough.

The far-right party came top in six of France’s 13 regions, gaining 28 per cent of the vote overall, but latest polling shows that this second round vote for the FN in the north and south has become much tighter.

That’s not to deny the party its huge rise in popularity in the past few years. In last year’s European Parliament elections, it came first.

Today’s election will tell us that little bit more about the party’s chances in France’s presidential elections, under eighteen months away.

Another rise in the polls may be likely by then, but a Le Pen presidency is realistically off the cards. Instead it will be a race between the left and the right – both parties which have their own problems.

President François Hollande has pledged to stand only if unemployment goes down. For the moment, it’s a far from optimistic picture. October saw the highest monthly rise since 2013 – at 10.8 per cent.

In a continent where unemployment overall is in decline, France has been picking up. The figure was 1.2 per cent up on the month before, and 3.7 per cent greater compared with figures from the year before.

President Hollande’s popularity has been boosted by his leadership after the 13th November attacks – symbolically a month ago today. It’s always hard to say how much national politics sways opinion at a local level, but it’s an easy guess that France’s turbulent year will be playing on the minds of many voters.

And for former president Nicolas Sarkozy, he will need to battle a primary for leadership of the party into the elections, with rival Alain Juppé widely expected to beat him.

Sarkozy will also have to prove that his Republican Party isn’t just chasing the coat tails of the FN and swinging to the far right with populist policies.

Security issues have clearly been high on the list of voters’ worries, but with a government fighting so hard to reform France’s economy and with results so hard to see, economic recovery will be a tough sell for Hollande’s government going forward.

Europe has seen a sea change in its politics since the beginning of the financial crisis. Today will be proof – if more were needed – that France is a three party state, with Marine Le Pen rubbing shoulders with Sarkozy and Hollande a for a while longer yet.

While she may not claim seats and tangible power, the worries of Front National voters – French identity, France’s place in Europe, security issues and economic uncertainty – are problems that simply can’t go unnoticed if France’s politics wants to remain relevant – and not fearful of the all too real far right invasion.

Between now and spring 2017, there can be no more complacency as no party can really claim victory from these elections.

What next for Paris?

What next for Paris?

A nation still in mourning after Friday’s attacks, with many in Paris unsure what will happen next – this the second attack on the city this year, targeting those who were simply enjoying daily life at a concert or restaurant.

So what does the future hold for the capital and the rest of France?

Using clips from BBC radio, I’ve made a 3-minute package asking how Paris and France can get back to normal.


A question of taste for Charlie Hebdo

The controversial Charlie Hebdo this week, criticised by the Kremlin. Credit: Charlie Hebdo

Just a few weeks ago, outgoing columnist at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Patrick Pelloux,  exclaimed: “Charlie Hebdo is dead”.

You would hardly think so after seeing the magazine’s two cartoons this week illustrating last Saturday’s downing of a Russian passenger flight over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, which killed 224 people.

The first depicted the smoking wreckage of the plane and a scattering of body parts surrounding a passenger’s skull wearing sunglasses which pointed to the “the dangers of Russian low-cost flights”. It was a gory, unforgiving image, even in cartoon form.

The other showed the plane’s debris – including broken bits of wings and the body of a passenger – falling on an Islamic State militant with the caption, “The Russian air force intensifies its air strikes”, after the country started its military operation at the end of September in an effort to prop up the Assad regime.

The Kremlin took no time at all in addressing the media on Friday to denounce the cartoons as “pure blasphemy”.

A spokesman from the Russian foreign ministry said they had nothing to do with democracy or freedom of expression, deeming the cartoons “unacceptable”.

Meanwhile, social media in Russia has been in uproar, with the hashtag “I am not Charlie” used to criticise the poor taste of the cartoons.

One tweet read: “Insane cynicism and a mockery of the memory of the victims of this terrible tragedy.”

The graphic depiction just under a week after Russia’s most deadly terrorist attack on its own people predictably touched a nerve. One of the country’s most popular social networks – VK – said the cartoons had been the most discussed topic among its 100 million active users.

Russian politicians have also taken to the airwaves to echo the Kremlin’s criticism.

This is a magazine which is continuing to sharpen its teeth and irreverence, nine months after gunmen stormed the magazine’s offices shooting twelve people dead.

Its editor-in-chief, Gérard Biard, came to the defence of the questionable taste of the cartoons. He said: “the Kremlin was using Charlie Hebdo to make a point.”

“They want to draw attention to two miserable cartoons and spark a controversy that’s unwarranted. It’s the usual manipulation of a totalitarian power”, he told AFP.

“We respect more values than those in power in Russia, like democracy, secularism and freedom of expression”, Biard said.

The terrorist attack back in January was seen as an attempt to threaten one of France’s most basic principles – freedom of expression, which the magazine displays in every issue.

It was a value that the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius defended on Friday with direct reference to this week’s controversial Charlie cartoons.

Fabius said: “Freedom of expression is a pillar of French democracy. There is no question of touching it.”

He defended the magazine’s illustrations, saying front covers of Charlie Hebdo may offend other countries, but in France – where there are different religious and social contexts – “they don’t pose any problems”.

The magazine has turned to political satire and current affairs for inspiration for its front page, steering clear of sensitive religious cartoons. Some worry this is self-censorship creeping into the magazine.

Most recently in the firing line has been President François Hollande’s make-or-break climate conference later this month in Paris, which commentators say will significantly shape his political legacy. This unpopular president is an easy target for derision, seen as flip-flopping on running the country.

Ten years after heavy rioting across the country, Charlie Hebdo said the next firestarter would be far-right Front National party leader Marine Le Pen – a frequent front cover star – in the presidential elections in 2017.

The cover of a recent edition of Charlie Hebdo. It reads:
The cover of a recent edition of Charlie Hebdo. It reads: “Welcome, migrants! You’re at home here!”
Credit: Charlie Hebdo.

The flow of migrants to Europe has been a frequent cover story this year in a typically imaginative style. One September issue shows former news anchor Claire Chazal, who says ISIS treats her better than her employer after she was fired from her job.

Another depicts a migrant who had come to France to learn Latin, poking fun at controversial school reforms.

The magazine is now on a more even footing, through the weight of trauma among its staff is never too far from the surface.

Sales are up and it has recently moved into new offices, but so are the death threats. Staff live under around-the-clock protection by police and bodyguards.

Infighting and depression have spread among the survivors of January’s attack, arguing over finances and the magazine’s future as millions pour into its coffers.

Just last month, Charlie Hebdo relaunched its website, offering readers a daily cartoon on all manner of subjects.

The site is even venturing beyond France’s borders with an English-language section of some of its editorials.

Pelloux, a columnist who left the magazine last month, citing fatigue said: “A part of us has gone with the attacks.”

At the beginning of this year, Charlie Hebdo was ripped apart from the inside.

Its resistance to worldwide pressure and controversy, they hope, won’t allow the magazine to simply fade away.

Time is no healer for France’s banlieues

Time is no healer for France’s banlieues

It was one of France’s darkest periods in recent times. Ten years ago today, three weeks of violence spread across Paris and throughout the country following the accidental deaths of  two teenagers in a police chase. It underlined deep divisions and inequalities in some of France’s and Paris’ most neglected neighbourhoods, problems dating back to the eighties that many say still haven’t gone away.

Teenagers Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore came from Clichy-sous-Bois, a poor immigrant suburb of Paris effectively cut off from the rest of the world without any road or rail links. There was – and is – nothing there to keep kids entertained, residents say.

The Guardian
Killed by accident: teenagers Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore

The two, together with a friend, Muhittin Altun, found themselves near a break-in as police officers arrived to investigate. They ran to hide, headed for a power substation. They were apparently aware of the danger as they climbed over the wall. Zyed, 17, and Bouna, 15, were both electrocuted.

Tensions quickly rose, which protesters said were because of a frustration with high unemployment and police brutality.

What followed were three weeks of violence, which within days of uprisings in and around Paris spread to many other French cities like Bordeaux, Toulouse and Lyon.

In total, 10,000 cars were burnt, 300 buildings destroyed or damaged, 6,000 arrests and 1,300 people serving a prison sentence.

La Haine
France’s difficult ethnic and social tensions under the spotlight in 1995 film La Haine

Such problems – and reactions – served as inspiration for one of France’s all-time most popular films, La Haine, from 1995, which depicted the struggles of daily life in an abandoned Paris suburb through its three multi-ethnic protagonists: a Jew, an Arab and an African. They wander the streets of the monochrome city after their friend is beaten by police and in a coma in hospital. The one message of the film – la haine attire la haine, hatred breeds hatred. As relevant to its main protagonist, who flaunts a gun stolen from a policeman, as to a largely ignorant and uncompassionate police force.

One of the key themes of the film was the crisis of French identity for first and second generation immigrants. For them, just how relevant are those typically French values of liberty, equality and fraternity?

Trapped in a cycle of crime, often drug or gang related, the feeling of alienation is in many cases understandable.

The climate in today’s France isn’t helping either. An economy dragging its heels, with growth so scarce it can’t create jobs, no matter how much politicians try to sound optimistic.

In years gone by, neighbourhoods have seen billions of euros of investment from the state, ultimately without results. Merely throwing money at a difficult area is not even scratching the surface of a multitude of social issues.

Unemployment in France hasn’t fallen substantially from around ten per cent in three years. Data from Insée in 2013 showed unemployment among immigrants – those born outside France with or without French nationality who often populate the deprived Parisian banlieues – was just under double the figure for people born in France. A lack of qualifications, the inability to reach public-sector jobs and discrimination are all factors behind such glaring inequality.

Add in the complex political dynamic and the future looks all the more bleak. The rise of far right politics with the Front National has made a minority hostile to migrants, even if the FN rejects the notion of being xenophobic.

1421077125168The perceived threat of Islam, behind the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, has made France feel vulnerable amid the rush of national unity. Those responsible for the attacks, brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, were born in France to Algerian parents. Chérif had been involved in jihadist gang and was arrested in January 2005 when he and another man were heading for Syria.

In prison, he met Amedy Coulibaly, a radicalised Muslim, who killed a policewoman in the hours following the Charlie Hebdo attack on 7th January. The following day, he killed four people after holding up a Kosher supermarket. Addressing his hostages, he said: “I am Amedy Coulibaly, Malian and Muslim. I belong to the Islamic State.”

What, then, drove these French nationals to attack their own?

Many blame a failure to integrate disaffected youth, an inability to break down the iron curtain separating out-of-town areas of Paris from the rest of France.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Prime Minister Manuel Valls conceded: “There is, indeed, social, ethnic and territorial apartheid in France.”

Yet the Front National went further and capitalised on the crisis, blaming “20 years of mistakes” in immigration and Europe which had provided a breeding ground for radical Islam – even proposing a referendum on the death penalty.

One solution that sees broad agreement across the political spectrum is the value of secularism (laïcité), separating religion from state, and in schools, becoming tougher on discipline.

But the problem is at worse psychological – and deep-seated. Discrimination breeds hate, which breeds violence.

During the 2005 riots, the Interior Minister at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, was accused for inflammatory language, reportedly calling the rioters “racaille”, loosely translated as “rabble”.

The vulnerable, voiceless and disaffected in France cannot be filled with optimism as they look at the rise of the hostile extreme-right and no movement on social mobility. Inequality – and the threat to public order – is going nowhere.

MORE | Timeline: French riots (BBC News)

France’s unpredictable political machine fires up once more

France’s unpredictable political machine fires up once more

The French political machine is powering up again after a summer break, greatly in anticipation of December’s regional elections. This week, loyalists and members of France’s governing Socialist party, along with those from the Front National, have been gathering to muse party strategy and reflect on policy in the annual ‘université d’été’ conference season amid a stagnant economy and a large programme of reforms aimed at cutting down France’s large bureaucracy.

If last week was dominated by fall-out from the parricide of Front National co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, this week’s big story was a proverbial call to arms to rescue the flagging Socialist ship, together with the internal row within the government over the country’s sacred 35-hour working week.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls brought the party gathering to a close with a speech centred on the values of the Socialists, calling for members to be “proud”. So passionate was his hour-long address that his shirt was visibly soaked through with sweat. Among his pledges was the duty to help those fleeing war, torture, oppression and persecution, who “need” France’s help and “must” be welcomed.

On the 35-hour working week law, the holy cow of the French left, Valls considered the issue “clos”, or closed, after a series of heated public disagreements with rogue Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron. He argued it was a “false idea” for France to think it would create more jobs and grow more if people worked fewer hours, especially in comparison with other European nations, such as Britain or Italy. Favouring abstract language, Valls asserted: “What interests me is not the past but the future.”

Absent from the weekend conference, young members of the Socialists called for Macron’s resignation, booing at the mention of his name or allusion to his economic plan.

Macron, a former banker, has thus far divided political minds. For the traditionalist wing of the Socialist party, he is part of the elite, guilty of straying from traditional Socialist values, as Hollande positions himself as increasingly pro-business, after a purge of left-wing members from his cabinet last summer. Supporters say Macron is forcing France to face an inconvenient truth and, as such, adopt necessary reforms.

The minister said work should be a “central value of the left”, not a “taboo subject”.

Reforms for France’s flat economy are the order of the day as the unpopular government seeks to be seen as economically credible. Defiant as ever, Valls said: “We are pressing ahead with the deep reforms our economy needs” – “we won’t be swayed”. In the firing line, the country’s rigid labour laws, which have “become inefficient” and “curbed activity”.

In the crowd-pleasing address, the prime minister equally evoked the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January as a means of promoting equality and fighting against discrimination in France, and criticising the confusing, “incoherent” right of politics, and the reactionary far-right.

A survey for France’s Paris Match magazine this week confirmed a trend that the incumbent Socialist party would be eliminated in the first round of voting in the country’s presidential election in 2017. In first place – Marine Le Pen, whose popularity has suffered only slightly following the public execution of her outspoken father, Jean-Marie.

The poll also compared the fortunes of several Socialist leaders, pitting President against Prime Minister Valls and several other hypothetical candidates. It showed that Manuel Valls would do marginally better than François Hollande, beaten by Republican candidate and former President Nicolas Sarkozy by just one point.

For the FN’s part, Marion Maréchal Le Pen – the party’s only deputy in the south – would win the first round of voting in December elections. In the second round, to be held a week later, she would lose by a narrow gap of just 2 points, within the margin of error in this one poll. In this way, the fight between right and extreme right has rarely been closer, and evidently it’s all to play for in a battle of tight numbers.

The poll has given rise to suggestions that Prime Minister Valls, seen as performing well with 29-45 year olds, professionals and those with a higher education, is an attractive candidate for the Socialists if unemployment doesn’t fall, leaving an empty seat at the top of the party, after Hollande’s pledge to not stand as Socialist candidate in the 2017 presidential elections.

Valls is part of the social liberal wing of the Socialist party, known for widening the appeal of the party by positioning himself as a bold reformer, capable of breaking down party taboos.

Selling ambitious – albeit watered-down – and divisive reforms to the French people will play alongside questions within the equally divided Socialist government. Endless discussions about Hollande’s deep unpopularity will pose questions about the leadership of the party ahead of elections, particularly with Valls in mind as his successor. However, such leadership whispers, serve as nothing more than a great distraction from the more crucial economic questions facing France.

The outcome of the government’s five-year term will depend above all on the health of the French economy, and the all but uncertain fate of the programme of reforms. Survival is the best option for this Socialist government.

Back to school for France’s President

Back to school for France’s President

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.


Satirical TV show 'Les Guignols de l'Info' depicts François Hollande reading about growing unemployment. Credit: YouTube
Satirical TV show ‘Les Guignols de l’Info’ depicts François Hollande reading about growing unemployment. Credit: YouTube

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.”

An exclusive interview with Nicolas Sarkozy. Credit: Corse Matin
An exclusive interview with Nicolas Sarkozy in Corsica. Credit: Corse Matin

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.

The environment

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.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, left, welcomes Britain's Interior Minister Theresa May before the start of an international meeting aimed at fighting terrorism, in Paris, France, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015. A rally of defiance and sorrow, protected by an unparalleled level of security, on Sunday will honor the 17 victims of three days of bloodshed in Paris that left France on alert for more violence. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)/PAR115/987867890141/1501111213
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve meets with British Home Secretary Theresa May in Calais on Thursday

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.

France’s olive branch to Greece

France’s olive branch to Greece

Greek negotiations are looking more precarious – and harder to predict – than ever. This weekend saw a hard-ball approach from Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who proposed allowing a temporary exit for Greece from the euro, and an even clearer line from Finland, who rejected the latest proposals, that trust has completely broken down – its finance minister erring more on the side of a Grexit than keeping the country in the single currency. One official said some of the proposals appeared designed to “humiliate” the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza government.

Germany stands together with Baltic states, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Netherlands in being uncompromising and more willing than ever before to see the 19-member currency break down. Meanwhile, hope still rests with Southern Europe states such as Spain, Portugal and Italy, who have shown themselves to be far more ready to fight for a deal, owing in part to their own economic troubles. A Greek exit would do them no favours, as the ripples of a broken Europe would flood the entire continent no less.

By far the most loyal supporter of Greece throughout the negotiations has been France. Newspaper reports at the beginning of the week outed the fact that advisers from the French Treasury had been in Athens, helping the Greeks to draft out the proposals that prime minister Alexis Tsipras handed to the European Council on Thursday evening. One adviser said: “It’s the Greeks who are holding the pen, but they are using us as a sparring-partner”. Sceptics have used this as a means of exaggerating France’s role, retorting that the Greeks would be incapable of working alone on the list of reforms. Greece needs expertise, and for France, it shows that they are at the very centre of the European game.


On Sunday, Hollande dismissed German proposals of a temporary Greek exit, which had grabbed many of the headlines. He asserted: “There is no temporary Grexit, there is a Grexit or there is not a Grexit”.

For each French citizen, Greek debt totals 600-700 euros. Although the eurozone has tried since the beginning of this crisis to build a firewall around Greece, a Grexit would nonetheless spell a loss of 55.7bn euros to the French, far more than either Italy or Spain, according to 2012 figures.

France’s president, François Hollande, has long been working hard for a German compromise in achieving a deal, acknowledging the suffering of the Greek people and the need for “indispensible” reforms. On Wednesday, he said Greece’s latest proposals for its next 59bn euro bailout were both “serious” and “credible”. Hollande equally talked of the need of a united Europe, whose break-up Angela Merkel could realistically never allow herself to preside over.

The Greek crisis has marked the fracturing of the symbolic, long-standing Franco-German micro-managing of the European Union’s recent troubles – Angela Merkel seems more than ever to run the show alone – her calm, measured approach resonating far more than any other leader.

In no uncertain terms, France’s economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, warned in Spain’s El País newspaper on Thursday: “if we don’t act fast, the euro zone will cease to exist in ten years”. In what is increasingly seen as a disagreement around negotiation tables, Macron argued that a Grexit would not only be an economic failure, but political. He said: “Not doing everything possible so that Greece stays in the eurozone is accepting a deterioration of Europe”. Macron’s grand gestures were accompanied by a warning for the 19-member currency as a whole: “the status quo and ambiguity are driving us to the disbanding of the eurozone.”

Echoing the language of Hollande, he said a compromise had to be found, with ambitious reforms for Greece, but not so much so that they destroy the country’s economy, given its already painful course of austerity. Investment was needed for growth, but Macron maintained a critical line against Syriza and Tsipras, who is no hero of the Greek people, he said.

François Hollande has always been seen to be more presidential on an international stage, from France’s military intervention into former colony Mali’s war against Islamists, to the British co-ordinated attack on Libya. In reality, he is continuing to struggle with his own domestic politics – a weaker-than-expected economic recovery, with unemployment refusing to budge. Economic growth for this year is predicted at 1.2%, admittedly far more than the 0.4% average growth of the past three years.

A strong Europe can not only afford Hollande a more statesman-like appearance on the continental stage, more crucially it pays to counter the anti-EU rhetoric of Marine Le Pen’s Front National party, whose reaction to Greece’s ‘no’ vote was to laud Greek PM Alexis Tsipras as a respected leader and a man of the people. She was clearly drawing on the rhetoric of increasingly potent populist politics sweeping across Europe. To draw parallels, Le Pen conjured up the figures of Mitterand, even de Gaulle, to colour her complimentary remarks. At the same time, she attacked Hollande for being the “cabinet director of Jean-Claude Juncker”.

Le Pen talked of the victory of the ‘no’ camp as a means of standing up to the “oligarchy” of the EU, the “diktats” of the single currency and an “inhumane” austerity. In short, she said: “this No is excellent news”, spelling the end of France throwing money into Greece’s black hole of debt. She even coined the term “eurosterity” (or eurostérité), calling for the dissolution of the single currency, which she likened to a vanity project which was saving face only by imposing tough austerity.

Running short of allies, Alexis Tsipras cut a lonely figure around the negotiation table on Sunday. As leaders enter a new week of talks, nobody really knows whether Greece is blindly tip-toeing to the exit door, or if the solidarity shown by the likes of France will ultimately lead to a last-minute deal. After leaders ignored the seemingly apocalyptic Sunday deadline, the can-kicking that has characterised negotiations looks set to continue, for how ever long it can.