France falls into triple-dip recession

A bad end to a bad year for François Hollande.

The French economy has fallen into recession for the third time in four years, with official figures this morning showing a contraction of 0.2 per cent for the first quarter of 2013.

That's worse than forecasters expected, and follows another 0.2 per cent contraction in the last three months of 2012. The French statistical agency reports that the bulk of the contraction comes from a shrinking trade balance; while exports fell by 0.5 per cent, imports "reached stability", growing by just 0.1 per cent. At the same time, household consumption expenditure was "almost stable" – this time, the euphemism means "shrinking by 0.1 per cent".

These figures pile pressure on the French president François Hollande, whose left-wing approach to austerity – focused around tax rises on the rich, rather than spending cuts on the poor – has been beset by problems; today is the first anniversary of his election, and it's an ignominious way to mark it. With stagnation between the second and third quarters of 2012, the French economy is now 0.4 per cent smaller than it was when he took the job.

Elsewhere in Europe, Austria narrowly avoided recession – as narrow as can be, really, because GDP remained unchanged at 0.0 per cent after a contraction of 0.2 per cent last quarter – and the Czech Republic, which has been in recession for the last 5 quarters, contracted by 0.8 per cent.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.