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Cheered in Mali, Hollande still losing the war at home

Photo: AFP

President François Hollande has been bolstered by France's military intervention in Mali, but with the economy stagnating, he is in trouble with key voting constituents at home.


President François Hollande faced on Thursday the first nationwide strike by French civil servants since he took office last May. Hollande, a Socialist, has been hailed at home and abroad for routing Mali-based Islamists with a lightening military intervention, but he is quickly falling out of favour among his key voting constituencies.

Thousands of civil servants, including hospital personnel and teachers, took to the streets in Paris and across the country to demand better pay and more jobs. Unions organising around 120 marches throughout France said they would rally around 100,000 people.

Victor Alavar, a 48-year-old nurse on strike, said patients were suffering because of the “chronic” deficit of hospital staff. “Sometimes [patients] have to wait three to six months for certain surgeries, and there are more and more accidents,” he said.

Alavar, who works at a major hospital in the southwest city of Toulouse, said the government was closing smaller rural hospitals and certain specialised care units, putting growing pressure on the already limited staff at large hospitals like his.

“Little by little workers are being pushed to their limits, and some of them break. I have colleagues who go on sick leave with depression; one female nurse recently had a heart attack. It’s getting worse,” he lamented.

Thursday’s collective groan against France’s Socialist-led government may the first mass strike since the left took power last year, but it is also likely the first of many. France counts 5.2 million state civil servants.

Paris primary school teachers closed almost all schools in the French capital on January 23 to protest Hollande’s first major education reform, and have promised to do so again on February 5. Some unions representing civil servants are threatening to go on strike again on February 12.

Teachers in particular, but state employees in general, voted in mass for Hollande last May. Many among them now say they are disappointed over what Hollande has done, or failed to do, so far.

“This government promised change, but has continued the same policies of the previous one,” Alavar said. “Today’s strike is just the beginning stage.”

Stagnant economy, sinking approval rating

Hollande’s approval rating has been in virtual freefall since he took office almost nine months ago. His leadership in fighting rebels bent on jihad in northern Mali gave him a slight lift in recent public opinion polls, but analysts say the president is walking on thin ice in relation to his traditionally left-wing base.

Hollande began his presidency with an approval rating of above 60 percent. It has since dipped to 44 percent – the same level his one-term predecessor, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, hit nine months into the job.

“Warning bells are going off for Hollande,” said Céline Bracq, an opinion expert with the French polling firm BVA. “A growing number of left-leaning voters are telling us that the president’s political positions are unclear and that he is not far enough to the left.”

In last year’s successful bid for the presidency, Hollande portrayed himself as an anti-austerity candidate, promising to re-launch France and Europe’s economy by investing in strategic areas –such as education– and forcing the country’s wealthiest to shoulder more weight.

But austerity remains the norm in France. Marylise Lebranchu, Hollande’s minister in charge of civil servants, said on Thursday that pay raises for civil servants was out of the question, citing “budget constraints”. She is scheduled to meet with union representatives on February 7.

At the same time, the economic slump Hollande inherited has failed to turn a corner.
Last year his government was forced to change previous growth forecasts for 2013 from 1.2 percent growth to 0.8 percent, and admitted that unemployment was expected to continue rising until at least 2014.

Thursday turned out to be an especially inauspicious day for Paris, with US tyre maker Goodyear announcing it would close its plant in the northern city of Amiens, a factory that employs around 1,200 workers.

“Clearly there is disappointment. A growing number of people answer negatively to the question “Is the president keeping his promises?”, Bracq noted.

Even Hollande’s flagship campaign pledge to tax French millionaires at a 75% rate has gone unmet, after France’s highest court declared the law unconstitutional in December.

With the economy still on ice, Hollande’s push to legalise marriage for same-sex couples could turn into the only clear example that he can deliver on his election platform.

A tough road ahead

Speaking in a televised interview on TF1 television in September, Hollande begged for patience, explained the economy was “even worse" than anticipated, but pledged that by the end of his term in 2017 “the French will be able to say we live better than in 2012.”

It appears his words have failed to resonate with voters, a majority of whom say they expect their lives to be the same or worse in four-year’s time. According to a recent study by the French pollster Ifop, 44 percent of people expect their personal situation to remain the same and 44 percent predict it will be worse.

Bracq said that if Hollande had any hope of re-election in 2017, he would have to show effective action in creating jobs and increasing purchasing power, especially among blue-collar workers. “Clearly they are the Socialist’s Achilles heel. If he does not want to lose them, he has to present them with a clear economic vision.”

But some left-wingers, like the nurse Avalar, are already saying it is too late: “I voted for Hollande in 2012, but I can’t imagine I’ll do it again.”

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