François Hollande took a big risk on Tuesday night. The French president turned up incognito, with only a small company of riot police on hand, to watch the national football team try to overcome a two-goal deficit and qualify for the World Cup finals at the expense of Ukraine. Mr Hollande is regularly accused of an excess of caution, but this was seen by many as a long-odds bet. Luckily for the Elysee, Didier Deschamps’ team turned up to play for the first time in several months, and the president was able to witness a victory and return to the Faubourg St Honore with a smile on his face.
It is about the only piece of good news that has come Mr Hollande’s way this autumn. The latest IFOP poll gives him an approval rating of 20 per cent the lowest for any president since the poll began in 1958. (Even François Mitterrand’s lowest rating was 22 per cent.) Another poll, by YouGov, puts him down at 15 per cent, only 3 per cent of voters expressing a strongly positive view.
The economy has once again disappointed. An expansionary second quarter appeared to suggest that the recession had bottomed out, and that France was on the road to recovery, albeit a slow one. The third quarter dashed those hopes, and the first estimate is of a contraction of 0.1 per cent. There are slightly more optimistic signs for the rest of the year, but the OECD published a politically delayed assessment of the French economy which rehearsed the familiar critique of inflexible labour markets and extravagant levels of public spending and taxation.
Taxation, indeed, has been the hottest of a set of burning buttons this autumn. Football clubs are threatening to strike in response to the government’s attempt to make them pay a tax rate of 75 per cent on high earners’ wages. When the constitutional court ruled against the initial plan for a direct tax of 75 per cent on earnings over €1m, the government dreamed up a wheeze to maintain the headline figure, but impose it on employers instead. Rich footballers may not be “this week’s good cause”, but even they have attracted popular sympathy at a time when voters think the tax burden is simply too high.
A weekend or two without football matches is not likely to topple the state, but there are many other casi bellorum which are bringing people on to the streets. The Le Parisien newspaper has a helpful website called “Actualité Manifestations” – Demonstration News, one might say – which lists the disruptions one can expect across the hexagon day by day. It’s a kind of weather forecast -strong likelihood of perturbations in Brittany and a hot front is crossing Marseille – that sort of thing. The government have been watching it carefully in recent weeks. (Maybe if something similar had been available to Louis XVI in 1789 the course of world history might have been different).
Recent editions have described lycée students protesting against the treatment of a Roma schoolgirl sent back to Kosovo. For reasons obscure to me, I fear, midwives are up in arms and have taken to descending on Paris in numbers. Most importantly, there has been a wave of demonstrations by farmers, blocking roads around the capital. They are especially concerned about a proposed new “ecotaxe” of 20-25 eurocents a kilometre levied on trucks, due to be introduced in January. Even though there are already complex concessions for remote areas, the agricultural community is outraged.
Already, the government have backed off, and suspended its introduction. But, as usual, the opponents have smelt blood and press for abandonment. The government have this week been obliged to concede a bottom-up review of the tax system, led by Jean-Marc Ayrault, the embattled prime minister, whom many see as a weak link in Mr Hollande’s team. But Mr Ayrault has been clear that they are not talking about reducing the tax burden overall, merely finding better ways of levying the almost 50 per cent of gross domestic product the government need to keep France’s enormous public sector in Badoit and Baguettes.
Meanwhile Mr Hollande sought solace in a trip to Israel, where France’s tough stand on the nuclear talks with Iran earned him a favourable press. But his problems are such that one successful overseas trip, or a famous 3-0 win, will not turn them round. All French football fans know their team’s prospects in Brazil remain poor, and almost all economic commentators recognise that France needs a competitiveness makeover.
There is even excitable talk of a presidency, unable to govern and maintain public security, which collapses before the end of its five year mandate. I discount this febrile chat, if only for the reason that the opposition is almost as unpopular. Only 25 per cent of voters think the centre-right UMP would do any better. The National Front is the group most likely to reap this particular whirlwind, an outcome which even Mr Hollande’s fiercest critics on the left and on the centre-right do not wish to precipitate.
But we may be approaching a Mitterrand moment. Two years into his first term, after a social programme which raised the minimum wage and lowered the pension age, Mitterrand was obliged to change course, to remain in the European Monetary System. So in March 1983 came the so-called “tournant de la rigueur” – literally: the rigorous U-turn. Mr Hollande is approaching a similar decision point, if he wishes to rescue his presidency. It will not be easy. The French do not take easily to rigour, or to the smack of firm government. But the evidence is mounting that a policy of drift and concession will not coupe la moutarde, as the French do not say.