By Sophie Desvignes
French President François Hollande’s promises on New Year’s Eve sounded like a repetition of those from 2013, except that this time they came without credibility. Hollande followed the deeply rooted tradition of the Fifth French Republic by introducing his agenda to the French people through a TV speech on Dec. 31. The speech came in an unusual form (with the use of a Elysee patio in the background), which did not conceal the hypocritical and overall confusing tone of the socialist president’s rhetoric.
As required by the tradition, Hollande started by focusing on what has been achieved, declaring 2013 as “intense”.
Obviously 2013 has been a year marred by war. During the speech, Hollande emphasized the French military commitment to Mali, Syria and the Central African Republic. These commitments have brought about the peculiar circumstance in which a socialist government is involved in a number of wars rarely seen since the establishment of the Fifth Republic. Hollande said France met its responsibilities by “fighting terrorism in Mali, preventing the use and spread of chemical weapons in Syria and saving human lives in Central Africa”.
However, these military interventions are surrounded by uncertainty. Civil war in Syria has been going on for two years, and none of the sides engaged in the conflict are able to predict a withdrawal. While military actions in Mali and Central Africa are said to be temporary, this may not be the case given the colonial bonds between France and Africa that provides justification for long-term involvement.
Meanwhile, on the domestic front, Hollande stressed the successful governmental initiatives implemented to “balance public finance, improve the competitiveness of French enterprises, modernize labor market and strengthen retirement system taking into account painful jobs.”
Indeed, the French public deficit decreased from 4.8 percent of GDP in 2012 to 4.1 percent in 2013. This, however, is far short of the goal of a three percent budget deficit imposed (with the threat of sanctions) by the European Union.
Alongside financial uncertainty, massive layoffs are still commonplace throughout the country.
During his speech, Hollande recognized that “the economic crisis appeared to be longer and deeper than what (he) expected.” He acknowledged the difficulties the government faces in reducing unemployment (the unemployment rate has increased by 0.6 percent since 2013 to 10.9 percent) and expressed regret over the numerous restructuring plans implemented by French companies. A consequence of this is a “tax increase which became heavy, too heavy since it accumulated over the years.”
A government administration can try to minimize its responsibilities by blaming its predecessors, a strategy that has become tradition in French politics. Hollande seems to forget that former President Nicolas Sarkozy is not the only one who increased taxes. For the past 18 months, the socialist government has continued to increase or create new taxes. Last year, the French government passed a law that applies a 75 percent tax on companies whose income exceeds €1 million. Income taxes on households have increased, and 2014 begins with a rise of the national sales tax from 19.6 to 20 percent.
Hollande repeated throughout his speech that employment is his priority. Also, he announced the creation of “a responsible pact for enterprises.” In other words, he proposed a kind of quid pro quo between French companies and the government. The deal is the following: the government will reduce taxes on labor under the condition of an increase of hiring. However, given the general tendency to increase taxes, this announcement comes across as an attempt to limit the discontent of the French citizens. The president did not give any details about how he plans to implement this proposition.
For 2014, Hollande intends to center his program on three main issues: cutting spending, simplifying administrative procedures and investing in green energy.
Administrative procedures are numerous, complicated and a real burden on the French labor market. Reform seems necessary. Climate change is certainly a major issue of our century; however, energy reform must be coupled with economic growth. Embracing punitive policies is certainly not the best way to do this. Although it eventually abandoned it, the socialist government planned to create an “eco-tax” on merchandise trucks to be applied to French or foreign trucks which used part of the national roads. The rate would vary between 0.025 and 20 euro cents per kilometer according to the size of the vehicle. Green transition must not be a façade to increase taxes.
Hollande’s 2014 outlook is confusing because it does not look like the outlook of a socialist government. He reminded French citizens that they will change their municipal mayors and chose new European representatives in March. Regarding European elections, he said it was an “opportunity to promote a political majority, which will focus on employment and solidarity not on austerity and national selfishness.” Again, this warning against the political commitments of the opposition is hypocritical. What are current spending cuts and tax increases if not austerity?
Hollande also focused on the values of the Republic he wants to ensure and promote, revealing his more obvious socialist tone. He insisted on the important role of education and asserted complete commitment to its protection. He also asserted the importance of solidarity, secularism, independent justice and security. He tried to counteract national divisions, asking French citizens to be proud of their country. “More than ever you have to love France. Nothing is worse than denigrating oneself. Being pragmatic does not prevent from being proud,” he said.
This begs the question: how one can be proud of a nation led by incoherent and confusing ideology?
Photo By World Bank Photo Collection