French politics

In his Budget speech to parliament on Wednesday, the UK chancellor George Osborne indulged in the traditional needling of his opponents on the opposite bench. Whether it was a dig at Ed Miliband, Labour leader, for his two kitchens, or at the party’s recent electioneering in a “women-friendly” pink van, his jokes at the opposition’s expense met with the usual roars of raucous approval from his own benches.

But the second biggest target of his needling was rather more surprising – our friends across the Channel. Read more

France has been through a traumatic period following a spate of terror attacks that killed 17 people, which led to a wave of demonstrations by millions of defiant citizens in response. In the latest edition of the FT World Weekly podcast, Gideon Rachman is joined by Hugh Carnegy, a former Paris bureau chief, and Michael Stothard, one of the FT correspondents who covered the aftermath of the attacks, to assess the wider impact of the events and discuss whether France can ward off the forces of polarisation.

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By Gideon Rachman
A couple of days before the terrorist attacks in Paris, a book arrived at my office. I placed What’s Wrong with France? by Laurent Cohen-Tanugi on the shelves, alongside a line of similar titles: France on the Brink, France in Denial, France in Freefall and France’s Suicide.

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Sarkozy returns to frontline politics
With President François Hollande languishing at record lows in the polls, former president Nicolas Sarkozy has announced that he plans to return to frontline politics, which almost certainly means a view to running for the presidency in 2017. Gideon Rachman is joined by Hugh Carnegy, Paris bureau chief, and Tony Barber to discuss his prospects.

It’s the fashion these days for outsiders to lecture France as if it’s a talented but obstinate schoolboy failing his grades. The idea seems to be that the more you tell the French off, the faster they’ll pull their socks up. This approach is wrong. We should, instead, smother France with love.

Like anyone, the French like to hear from time to time that they are clever, beautiful, funny, kind and successful. But for the past 10 years or so, the outside world has spoken fewer nice words about France than about any developed country.

It’s reached ridiculous proportions. Anyone would think, from all these foreign sermons, that French civilisation was falling apart. This is hardly the way to get the best out of any nation, not just the French. We need to stop finding fault and start smothering France with love. Read more

Just when it seemed that European politics could get no harder for Angela Merkel, a new complication has emerged in the tangled world of the EU.

The German chancellor is already involved in a head-splitting row over the probable appointment of Jean Claude Juncker as the next European Commission president. This week while Ms Merkel was in Brazil watching Germany’s opening victory of the World Cup, the first big split emerged in her ruling coalition.

Sigmar Gabriel, her deputy, pounced on Ms Merkel’s absence to challenge her eurozone economic policy, in an intervention that has the potential to sour relations long after the original dispute is forgotten. Read more

Now that most of the results have come in from the European parliament elections, let’s take a family photograph of Europe’s presidents, chancellors and prime ministers. Who have the broadest smiles on their faces, and who are sobbing into their handkerchiefs?

Among the European Union’s six biggest states – France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK – the happiest leader must surely be Matteo Renzi, Italy’s premier. He won, and won big. Mr Renzi (above) demolished the notion that Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment Five-Star Movement is on an unstoppable roll. He also inflicted an emphatic defeat on Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia party.

Even though it was not a national election, the youthful Mr Renzi can now claim to have a mandate of sorts for the political, economic and social reforms that he knows are necessary to modernise Italy. This is not to say that he will succeed – the power of entrenched anti-reform interests in Italy is formidable. But maybe he has a better chance than he did 48 hours ago. Read more

No doubt about it, Sunday’s European parliament elections have produced a political tremblement de terre – an earthquake – in France, with Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN) claiming victory in the poll. But across the 28-nation EU as a whole, the mainstream pro-European parties will breathe a sigh of relief tonight at having held their ground relatively successfully against anti-establishment insurgents from the far right, far left and anti-EU camps.

The protest vote is not nearly big enough to be labelled a comprehensive rejection of the EU, its political values and its economic crisis management over the five years since the last European elections. Eurosceptics, broadly defined, are projected to win about 130 of the EU legislature’s 751 seats. Given that the EU has just gone through the biggest financial shock and recession of its 56-year history, the damage could have been greater.

Conversely, the vote cannot be considered a ringing endorsement of the cause of closer European integration. The mainstream centre-right European People’s party looks set to be the winner, but with its representation in the EU legislature sharply down to about 211 seats from 273. Moreover, estimates of a pan-European voter turnout of just over 43 per cent – well below the levels recorded in national elections in every member-state – indicate that more than half of the 388m eligible voters simply do not think the European parliament matters much. Read more

Four days away from potentially her biggest election victory, Marine Le Pen (above) has had a sharp reminder of the biggest threat to her assiduous efforts to detoxify the far-right National Front (FN) in the eyes of French voters: her father.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, the FN founder who handed over the party reins to his youngest daughter in 2010, remains its honorary chairman and is a candidate in Sunday’s election for the European parliament.

Before joining his daughter on the podium for the closing rally of the FN’s election campaign in Marseille on Tuesday evening, the party’s 85-year-old patriarch was heard discussing the issue of population growth and immigration with an FN mayor by two journalists from AFP, the French news agency.

The agency reported him as saying that France “risked submersion” from immigration and a low birthrate, complaining that the issue was being ignored.

In response to the suggestion that it was never to late to act, the agency said Mr Le Pen replied: “It is never too late, but still is it very late,” before adding: “Monseigneur Ebola could take care of it in three months.” Read more

A new direction for France?
President François Hollande’s socialist party took a serious drubbing in Sunday’s local elections. He responded by swiftly sacking his prime minister and replacing him with Manuel Valls, a tough interior minister and economic reformer from the party’s right wing. So does this appointment signal a modernising direction for France? Gideon Rachman is joined by Hugh Carnegy, Paris bureau chief, and Ben Hall, world news editor and former Paris correspondent, to discuss.

French President François Hollande has made an uncharacteristically audacious decision in appointing Manuel Valls, an economic reformer and Socialist party moderniser, as his new prime minister. Here are five things you need to know about the new premier: Read more

Can Hollande get the French economy back on track?
By an unfortunate coincidence, President François Hollande’s efforts to relaunch his presidency with an announcement of bold economic reforms have coincided with the revelation that he appears to be having an affair with an actress. Meanwhile, the economy continues to struggle, and the government is engaged in an effort to block performances by the controversial comic Dieudonné. Gideon Rachman is joined by Hugh Carnegy, Paris Bureau chief, and Ben Hall, world news editor, to discuss whether France is in crisis, or whether it’s business as usual

When President Francois Hollande steps up to the podium in the splendid Elysee Palace at 16.30 Paris time, 15.30 GMT on Tuesday for the third formal press conference of his 20-month old presidency, the first question on everyone’s lips is likely to be about the revelations of his apparent affair with a film actress.

How he deals with this embarrassing issue –Valerie Trierweiler, his partner and France’s first lady, remains in hospital recovering from the shock – will inevitably overshadow an event originally intended to concentrate on the economy.

But the financial markets, business leaders and France’s European partners will nonetheless be watching most closely what Mr Hollande has to say about his New Year resolution to inject some much-needed vitality into the French recovery, which is lagging behind those of the country’s biggest neighbours. Read more

France’s increasingly assertive extreme right has provoked new outrage with the publication on Wednesday of a magazine cover comparing Christiane Taubira, the (black) justice minister, to a monkey.

The country’s mainstream parties, otherwise at each others’ throats in the current fraught political climate, united to condemn Minute, which splashed a picture of Ms Taubira alongside the caption: “Clever as a monkey, Taubira gets her banana back.”

(In French slang, banana means a smile.)

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault demanded legal action against the magazine, a call quickly followed by the opening of a preliminary inquiry by the Paris courts, while Manuel Valls, interior minister in the socialist government, said he was investigating the possibility of blocking its distribution. Jean-Francois Copé, leader of the centre right UMP party, backed the government’s stance. Read more

Where does President François Hollande go from here?
In this edition of World Weekly, Gideon Rachman is joined by Hugh Carnegy, Paris bureau chief and Ben Hall, world news editor and former Paris correspondent, to focus on France, where President François Hollande’s approval ratings have dropped to a sorry 23%. The President’s plummeting popularity comes against the background of a weak economy and controversy over the deportation of a Roma schoolgirl. So where does Hollande go from here, and should we be worried by the momentum building behind the National Front ahead of the municipal and European elections next spring?

François Hollande (Getty)

François Hollande’s Socialist government is desperate to get across a message, not least to foreign investors, that France’s economy is in recovery mode and that it is now set to start reducing the heavy tax burden it has heaped on companies.

This sunny prospect received a cold shower on Tuesday in the form of a survey of American businesses in France.

Although respondents saw some improvement in economic conditions over the next two years after a worse-than-anticipated 2013, only 19 per cent expected to increase employment, while 26 per cent said they would be reducing jobs.

More worrying for Mr Hollande, the survey showed a sharp slide in the perception of France as a good place to invest.

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Hollande embraces Joachim Gauck (France 2)

Two striking images of François Hollande , France’s president, were doing the rounds on Wednesday. Alas for him, the moving picture of him in a sombre embrace with German president Joachim Gauck at the scene of a terrible Nazi massacre is not the one most people may remember.

Instead, French internauts were in digital stitches over a shot published by the AFP news agency showing the amiable president pulling a silly face on a visit to a school at the start of the new academic year on Tuesday.

Making it all the more hilarious were the words neatly written in classic, schoolmistressy French handwriting on the blackboard above his head: “Today, it is the first day of school.” Read more

Can President Hollande turn things around?

This week the French government announced a multi-billion euro programme of investment, designed to boost the economy and President Hollande’s flagging poll ratings. In this podcast, Gideon Rachman is joined by Hugh Carnegy, Paris bureau chief and Ben Hall, former Paris correspondent, to discuss a turbulent few weeks in which Mr Hollande has had to fire a cabinet member for dissent, the French government has clashed repeatedly with the European Commission in Brussels and Nicolas Sarkozy has made a flamboyant re-entry into French politics.