Observers of French politics are used to certain recurring issues. Just as with any country, there is a set of basic truisms in French governmental affairs. Among them are that trade unions will accuse governments of not caring about workers’ rights, that disgruntled workers will strike and, on a similar note, that unhappy students will march and / or shut down universities and other learning institutions in an attempt to get their way. I have read several times about the first example, and witnessed the other 2 on a number of occasions over the years, to the point of being personally affected – though not embroiled – by them.
The major political story of the past few months has been the backlash against the government over la loi El Khomri (named after the Labour Minister tasked with promoting it) – a labour bill that could have varying effects according to who you ask; it will either make it easier for young people to find jobs according to the government, lead to higher unemployment in the opinion of business leaders including the national employers’ association, MEDEF, or roll back social progress in the area of employment policy some 50 years according to student associations and trade unions, with one of the country’s major unions explaining that in a time of economic uncertainty “security for workers is essential in order to build a competitive economy, create jobs and reduce inequality”.
Due to the magnitude of the push back being received, the government has modified the text and it is now on its third version. No agreement among stakeholders (government, trade union, employers’ association) appears to be in sight. The employers’ associations have threatened to leave the negotiation table if certain provisions they frown upon aren’t removed and Prime Minister Manuel Valls is said to be ready to step down if this measure, viewed as a cornerstone of his time in office, is not passed or is watered down beyond recognition. To varying degrees, unions are dead set against the bill becoming law, and students are currently out in their numbers in street protests, and have been for weeks, in a protracted mobilisation dubbed “nuit debout” (up all night).
Rewind just about a decade to 2005 and a measure known as the contrat première embauche (loosely translated as “first job contract”) or CPE was the polarising employment-related issue of the day. Like with the loi El Khmori, the CPE was touted as a measure that would make it easier for young people to land their first jobs. I won’t go into any comparison of the content of the 2 laws here as there is no shortage of cogent economic / legal analysis out there comparing them. The long and short of it is that the CPE was a pet project of then-Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, just as it is now for Manuel Valls, but student protests helped put a stop to the CPE law being enacted and in the process the student protests almost brought the Villepin government to its knees. The sticktoitiveness of 2016’s youth protesters shows that they hope to pull off the same feat. As it happens, Manuel Valls harbours presidential ambitions, just as Villepin did in 2005.
The parallels between these 2 situations brings to mind the 1993 Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day, in which the main character finds himself in a time loop, stuck repeating the exact same day of events over and over. Oxford Dictionary defines Groundhog Day as “a situation in which a series of unwelcome or tedious events appear to be recurring in exactly the same way”.
The fiasco that the loi El Khomri is turning out to be is yet another stain on the record of President François Hollande. His popularity levels keep going lower and lower, a good chunk of his own Socialist Party has broken ranks with him and condemned his government’s handling of several policy issues, and many within the party are wondering out loud whether Hollande should even bother to run for re-election next year, given his abysmal performance in the eyes of so many thus far.
It’s no secret that Hollande was not the favourite to become president in the year or so leading up to the 2012 contest that saw him unseat embattled centre-right President Nicolas Sarkozy after the hard-nosed conservative had only served one 5-year term. Before the presidential campaign began in earnest, another name had been gaining momentum – that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Before his dramatic 2011 fall from grace, the IMF chief was seen as just the man to come and lead a beleaguered Socialist Party 16 years removed from power and had which seemed on the verge of implosion just 4 years earlier in 2008 when the party convention served to lay bare the divisions within the its ranks back into government. However, that was not to be and Hollande ended up emerging as the party’s candidate. Since then his less than stellar performance has always rung hollow, with Hollande coming off as a man not quite cut out for the job he had landed. He has almost seemed like an imposter, lacking what it takes to be what the French call “présidentiable” – or president material.
In making this kind of description of Hollande one cannot help but think of the 1997 movie The Man Who Knew Too Little, starring Bill Murray. The plot of this movie consists of Murray playing the role of Wallace Ritchie – an American visiting London, who doesn’t know that what he is going through is real. He is under the impression that the intrigue unfolding around him is part of an audience-participation “Theatre of Life” game. In true Mr. Magoo fashion, Ritchie unwittingly stumbles through serious situations involving Russian spies without fully gauging the gravity of it all. He thinks it is all make-believe. It may be so in his mind, but to the men who are trying to stir up trouble he is the frustratingly ideal target. Unfortunately, Hollande may very well be the president who knows too little, and all too real and potentially perilous elections loom ahead. No doubt Hollande is well aware of all this, for what it’s worth.