Hollande looks to new laws to turn France around in 2016
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With France still in the economic doldrums and recovering from a series of terrorist attacks, President François Hollande has his work cut out for him as he introduces a raft of new legislation in the hope that 2016 will be a year of progress.
Ending the state of emergency, but making it easier to enact
Hollande’s immediate task will be to extricate France from the state of emergency enacted after the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris in which 130 people were killed in the deadliest attack on French soil since the Second World War.
The state of emergency was extended by parliament for three months at the end of November.
It is due to expire on February 26, but before then, Hollande has promised to write into the French constitution a provision that will allow a state of emergency to be imposed more easily. A vast majority of French lawmakers are expected to support this move.
Both the constitutional amendment and the state of emergency itself have been controversial in a country that has not imposed such a drastic measure since the Algerian War of Independence in the 1950s.
Of particular concern was the use of the state of emergency to prevent demonstrations and to impose temporary stay-at-home orders for environmentalist militants and trade unions during December’s COP21 climate talks in Paris.
Despite profiting from imposing such a tough measure, Hollande will be keen to avoid any notion of heading towards a “permanent state of emergency”, which would undermine the legitimacy of the French state.
Stripping terrorists of French citizenship
A much bigger legislative challenge for Hollande will be to follow through with his promise to strip dual citizens of their French nationality if they have been “definitively convicted” of terrorist offences.
The measure, announced in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, took the wind out of the sails of the conservative and far-right opposition, which has been calling for just such a law (the far-right National Front has claimed it is at the origin of the idea).
But this largely symbolic measure, supported by 90% of the population, is already foundering.
On Monday, Socialist lawmakers complained that any such law would drive a gap between French citizens and the estimated five percent of them with dual nationality.
Socialist Party Secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, while supporting the measure, said it should be applied to “any French citizen” convicted of terrorist offences. Bruno Le Roux, who heads the Socialist group in the National Assembly, also said it should apply to all citizens “whether or not they have dual nationality”.
However, France’s obligations under international law prevent it from leaving any individual stateless, leaving any compromise meaningless and unenforceable.
Some 70 human rights and anti-racist organizations and unions have launched a petition to reject the measure outright.
Socialist Senator Samia Ghali warned that such a law, which has echoes of Vichy France stripping foreigners and Jews of their French citizenship during World War II, could be open to abuse.
The constitutional change, to be debated in Parliament from the beginning of February, requires a three-fifths majority vote from lawmakers. Getting this majority is by no means assured.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has defended the proposal, calling it “a strong symbolic act that punishes those who exclude themselves from the national community, nothing more, nothing less".
Pulling France out of the economic doldrums
“We may have a state of emergency on the security front, but we are also in an economic and social state of emergency,” Hollande said as 2015 drew to a close.
Indeed, unemployment has been Hollande’s most enduring headache since he was elected in 2012.
With just 16 months to go before the next presidential election Hollande, whose popularity has foundered on record levels of joblessness (currently at just over 10%), has said he will not stand for re-election in 2017 unless he can reverse the downward spiral of unemployment.
Measures to stimulate hiring include a bonus, put in place in June 2015 for a period of one year, of 4,000 euros per employee to companies offering permanent contracts and temporary contracts of over 12 months. Further help for French small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are expected in the form of reduced employment taxes, although exactly by how much remains unknown.
Hollande has also proposed to put 500,000 jobseekers into training, a programme that will cost an estimated one billion euros. Proposals on where the funding will come from, and how any such scheme will work, are expected at the end of January.
A bane of French employers are France’s strict employment laws, which protect workers on permanent contracts while making it difficult – and extremely expensive – to lay workers off.
This law is due for an overhaul and will be debated between March and May. While its author, Employment Minister Myriam El Khomri, will appease employers by suggesting a cap on redundancy payments, there is little indication that it will change the huge protections enjoyed by employees.
The environment as a driver for growth – and political cohesion on the left
The COP21 climate talks which began at the end of November were a resounding success, albeit overshadowed by the November 13 attacks and the state of emergency that followed, as well as regional elections that saw a worrying shift to the far-right.
Hollande said on New Year’s Eve that he was keen to capitalize on the success: “France has a responsibility to put in place what was agreed for the planet, and even to take a lead and to set an example.”
Measures, which will be announced in March following parliamentary approval for changes to the constitution, will include “large-scale projects to renovate existing buildings, for the development of renewable energy and for environmental projects to become a driver for economic growth”.
According to one (unnamed) minister, quoted by left-leaning daily Libération, launching such projects could reap considerable political dividends.
“The environment is a debate that has the potential to unite the left, well beyond the [ruling] Socialists,” the minister said referring to other left-wing parties including the Communists and EELV Green Party.
“This will put the left well ahead of [conservative former president] Nicolas Sarkozy [who plans to stand for president in 2017] who is not seen as being concerned about the environment,” the minister added. “This will be the opportunity to do some real politics.”