Meanwhile in France: towards presidential elections 2017
by Pierre Tositti (May 2, 2015)
Although the president of the Republic has not officially announced the desire to seek support for a second mandate, it is undeniably amongst his priorities. The Socialist Party (PS) is facing difficulty as the recent defeat at the ‘Départementales’ have demonstrated, thus demonstrating the dismissal approval ratings pending on the leading figures of the Government. The country is withstanding the effects of the financial crisis with high unemployment rate. The Government is struggling to enhance a coherent reform of the labour market to promote job growth. French companies are relocating abroad or are being taken over by foreign companies as the recent acquisition of French telecom company Alcatel-Lucent by Finnish Nokia illustrated.
Despite its electoral advance in the last years, the Front National (FN) is far from being guaranteed a second round during the presidential elections in 2017. The return of Nicolas Sarkozy, the re-strengthening of the centre right coalition and the recent results at the March 2015 ‘Départementales’ highlights this downtrend. The ‘Union pour un Mouvement Populaire’ (UMP) has won back votes from the far-right panorama after months where the situation had been vice versa. It is a thin game of boardrooms politics where declarations can tip the balance on one side or the other. The slightest details can affect electoral considerations. For instance, Sarkozy’s discourse regarding school menus and serving ‘hallal’ food assured an increase between 0,5 and 2 points on the FN according to polls.
In this atmosphere, room for political action and reforms seems restrained (thin). In December 2015, regional polls will precede the 2016 pre-presidential season. The on-going school reform is perhaps one of the most daunting political move considering the criticism it is facing by the opposition and fellow party members.
Controversy regarding school reform
One of the major political points of contention in France is the upcoming school reform announced by the Minister of Education, Najat Valaud-Belkacem. Amongst several points, traditional classes such as Latin, European Medieval History or bilingual French- German are to be suppressed from yearly programs. There has been severe criticism from teacher associations who see this break from the past and traditions as a failure to respect the ideas of periods such as the French Revolution and the ‘Lumières’ that are intrinsically intertwined to Western values.
Interestingly, critics of this reform have come from within the Parti Socialiste (PS) in addition to the right. For instance, former Prime Minister Jean Marc Ayrault wrote a public letter where he expressed concern regarding the idea of supressing bilingual classes, including German classes. The controversy also took a diplomatic disguise when German officials including the Ambassador in Paris and Angela Merkel expressed a personal opinion regarding the French national reform.
The main macro headlines of the reform dubbed as ‘College 2016: mieux apprendre pour mieux réussir’ proposes are the following:
1. Strengthening the acquisition of basic skills by combining academic and practical learning;
2. Take into account the specificities of each student to ensure the success of all;
3. Give greater margins initiative for teachers: 20% of time spent on new teaching methods;
4. Make college a place of fulfillment and citizenship building, a community where the individual experience and collective activity are enhanced;
5. End the ghettoisation of schools.
Situation of the Parti Socialiste (PS)
The PS will hold the ‘Primaire’ between the 20th and 27th November 2016 in order to establish the presidential candidate. The norm would see Hollande as the unquestionable main candidate. No inner political clash within the PS regarding the potential candidate has happened, yet. However, Prime Minister Manuel Valls who enjoys public support and is appreciated by the media is often deceptively depicted as a potential contender. A recent poll of the Ifop regarding the preferred politician established Manuel Valls (29%), Martine Aubry (19%), Francois Hollande (18%). Although statistics are not to be held as the truth, they indicate a measure of reality. The French President does not enjoy popular support and his candidature for 2017 will depend whether unemployment rates decrease. Mr Hollande is even distanced by Martine Aubry, a PS tenor that has been absent from the political panorama for several years, which in politics amount to an eternity.
Recently, the Prime Minister ruled out the option of running as a potential candidate for the presidential election, thus acknowledging that he would not cast a shadow on Francois Hollande. Perhaps Mr Valls, who is certainly loyal to the PS and to his President, deemed not to risk exposing himself two years in advance.
The Parti Socialiste will undergo several changes before this summer. During the period between the 5-7th June 2015, there will be a congress held in Poitiers. Activists will be asked to vote between motions (A,B,C,D) regarding the future political guidelines of the party. Additionally, a new secretary will be elected on 28th May in order to replace Jean Christophe Cambadelis.
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On the 30th May 2015, the UMP party will hold a ‘Congres Fondateur’ in order to install new political formation and rebrand it ‘ Les Républicains’. In France, a country that as always prided itself in not copying Anglo-Saxon political trends, there has been criticism regarding this controversial rebranding (communication) operation. Some UMP members argue that in order to dissociate from the FN slogan ‘UMPS’ (alluding to the fact that the country is run by the same two political families) it is necessary. Yet, most critics including UMP figures claim that the name is perhaps evoking too much the ‘Republicans’ of the United States, thus perhaps losing its French connotation.
One of the propositions of Sarkozy in order to gain support is to revoke the non-accumulative seating law that impedes elected mayors to held other positions such as parliamentarians for instance. This proposition is unpopular amongst the governing elites, right and left alike. The rationale is to gain more support in view of the upcoming elections (regional and presidential).
Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, Marine Le Pen was invited to the New York gala hosted by Time magazine. It celebrated the most influential personalities of 2015. As some critic have pointed out the date is relevant, for particular reasons. The 21st April is always connoted in France as the day when Jean Marie Le Pen and the FN qualified for the second round of the French presidential election and created a political havoc that led to the resignation of Lionel Jospin. Despite international criticism, the U.S event demonstrated how the FN is being recognized abroad as a major political actor to be reckoned with.
The international break came in conveniently for the FN leader as the last month had been filled with troublesome issues. It all started with comments of Jean Marie le Pen on far right media ‘Rivarol’ where he stated that ‘immigrants and children of immigrants’ were governing French citizens. This has created upheaval within the FN and the Pen family. Marine needs to disavow publically and demonstrate how the party is embarked in a rebranding operation and moderate image. The FN vice president Florian Philippot said that Jean Marie Le Pen comments marked a ‘definite and total rupture’.
*Pierre Tositti is Project Associate at Bridging Europe
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