Forecasts of insurrection are so recurrent in France that it is easy to be blasé about the latest outbreak. Once or twice a decade, unhappiness with the regime boils up and the country seems on the brink of eruption. Presidents Mitterrand, Chirac and Sarkozy all faced potential social convulsions arising from their inability to solve la crise. The expression applies not to a passing phase, but to the sense of economic doom that has haunted France since the 1973 oil-price shock. The upheavals never came and all three presidents defied predictions of collapse and saw out their terms. Now, only 18 months since he was elected, it is the turn of the hapless François Hollande and this time the ingredients of discontent seem so abundant that many are discerning the perfect storm.
Farmers, businessmen and workers in Brittany have taken to wearing symbolic red bonnets and joined in the revolt against Hollande’s blizzard of new or raised taxes. With France in a foul mood, protests are erupting in many quarters, with bonnets of many colours. Ambulance owners and riding schools have protested, both saying they will go out of business following a big jump in their rates of VAT. Farmers have planned a blockade of Paris for 21 November.
I’ve just heard a lurid analysis from one of the beneficiaries of the discontent – Marine Le Pen. The leader of the once-reviled Front National was on good form when I met her at the party HQ in Nanterre. Marine may have “de-demonised” the old xenophobic party founded by her father, Jean-Marie, but she retains his fondness for apocalyptic rhetoric. “France is going to be put to the fire and sword. I think we are in a period of revolt,” she told me.
The popular leading woman of French politics blames the entire political establishment for bringing France to its knees, while the establishment in turn holds her responsible for a rise of racism in public discourse. But just about everyone outside the Parti Socialiste would agree with her diagnosis: “The French have the feeling that François Hollande doesn’t have a clue where he is going. That’s what is stirring the anxiety.”
So much blame is heaped on Hollande that it is hard not to feel sorry for the amiable back-room party manager who, his friends say, still cannot believe his good fortune in landing the presidency last year. He is held responsible for just about everything that reflects the rancid mood in the country. If France’s once-glorious football team seems destined to crash out of the World Cup, c’est la faute à Hollande. If a lone gunman stalks Parisians, it is a symptom of his morbid reign.
France always falls out of love with its elected monarchs, but le désamour with Hollande, now the most unpopular president since polling began in 1958, has been spectacularly swift. It springs from his bumbling leadership, addiction to taxes and failure to halt unemployment and economic decline.
More broadly, Hollande and Jean-Marc Ayrault, his emollient prime minister, are paying the price for France’s unhappiness with the modern world. While big French firms have prospered in the globalised economy, successive presidents, including the supposedly reformist Nicolas Sarkozy, have shielded their people from the new mentality of competition. The enemy remains le libéralisme anglo-saxon, the alien creed deemed to be deployed against France by everyone from the Chinese to the European Commission.
Hollande has belatedly explained that France’s decline stems from a decade-long slide in competitiveness, but there is only so far he can go without touching left-wing taboos and betraying his promises to shore up the Gallic social model. In private, senior ministers accept that public spending has to be slashed from 56 per cent of GDP and that labour laws must be loosened, but they fear the revolt such actions could trigger.
Hollande is trying to weather the ridicule being showered on his presidency. He is making the most of the muscle that France has wielded in the Middle East, over Iran in particular, and in his successful military venture against Islamists in the Sahel. Yet some figures in his own entourage worry that he has failed to grasp the mood of catastrophisme and that muddling through to better times may not work.
In Hollande’s favour, one should remember that, unlike David Cameron or Angela Merkel, he is not a mere government leader, who can be disowned by parliament or rattled into calling elections. He holds the near-absolute powers of a president of the Fifth Republic, with a subservient parliament that only he could dissolve. And Hollande has lately been reminding nervous visitors of a favourite saying of his late mentor François Mitterrand: “Il faut laisser du temps au temps” – you have to give time time to do its work.
Charles Bremner is the Europe editor of the Times