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  Opinion   Oped  09 Dec 2016  A ‘malaise’ for next French Prez

A ‘malaise’ for next French Prez

The writer is based in South India for the past 40 years. He writes on India, China, Tibet and Indo-French relations.
Published : Dec 9, 2016, 12:56 am IST
Updated : Dec 9, 2016, 10:30 pm IST

Voters were certainly “tired” of Mr Sarkozy’s “hyper” style of functioning and his harsh words for those who did not agree with him.

French President Francois Hollande (Photo: AP)
 French President Francois Hollande (Photo: AP)

December 1 will remain a historic date in the history of the French presidency. The 62-year-old Socialist President, François Hollande, was the first head of the Fifth Republic, founded in 1958, to renounce contesting for a second term. In a stern televised statement from the Élysée Palace in Paris, he defended his four and half years at the helm, and stated: “I have decided that I will not be a candidate… In the months to come, my only duty will be to continue to lead my country.”

He acknowledged: “I am aware today of the risk of going down a route that would not gather sufficient support, so I have decided not to be a candidate in the presidential election.”

Reuters commented: “French voters elected Francois Hollande in 2012 on promises to fix the floundering economy. Five years on, he is leaving much unfinished work to his successor.”

The unemployment rate has risen above 10 per cent and growth is alarmingly slow.

Mr Hollande’s Socialist Party has been in total disarray and divided over who should run for the 2017 elections after the President beat all records of unpopularity (only four per cent of the French approve his policies), mainly due to his lack of charisma and some blatant mistakes, the latest was his confiding of state secrets to journalists for a book and making derogatory remarks on judges, footballers, etc.

To compound the President’s problems, his Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, had hinted that he wanted to be candidate for the Socialist primary (he has now officially announced his candidature: “Today, I have the responsibility to unite”, he said on December 5).

In the meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron, not long ago a close protegé of Mr Hollande, has also declared that he will be a candidate for the top job.

But what triggered Mr Hollande’s “renouncement” speech was the primaries of the Republican Party (Les Républicains or LR). The French knew that the winner of the contest would have a good chance to win the presidential elections next April and shift to the Elysée in May.

The LR primaries went rather smoothly; after watching the ugliness of the US presidential campaign for months, it was a bit of a surprise (and comfort) to see that the seven candidates engaged in the first round kept a rather decent attitude.

Not only did the main contenders — Nicolas Sarkozy, the energetic former President; Alain Juppé, the mayor of Bordeaux; and François Fillon, who served as Prime Minister under Mr Sarkozy — discuss their respective programmes of how to take France out of the current depressing slump in a composed way, but there was hardly any viciousness in the debate.

However, this time again, like during the US election or the Brexit vote, the surveys went completely wrong. They had predicted an easy victory for Mr Juppé, with Mr Sarkozy closely coming second.

But on the “E” day of the first round, Mr Fillon, who had been catching up in the last leg of the campaign, won with a hefty margin against Mr Juppé.

The former PM won 44 per cent of the votes, while Mr Juppé obtained 28 per cent. Mr Sarkozy came third with 20 per cent, while the four other candidates finished with less than three per cent (the only lady, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, coming fourth with 2.6 per cent).

Mr Sarkozy immediately accepted the verdict, which probably marked the end of his political career. Voters were certainly “tired” of Mr Sarkozy’s “hyper” style of functioning and his harsh words for those who did not agree with him.

While millions of voters apprehend the extreme right of Marine Le Pen, (who was not part of the Republicans primary), during the first round, the “anything but Sarkozy” prevailed: the former President is under several investigations, including over allegations of receiving funds from former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi for his 2007 presidential campaign.

Thereafter, the second round was a formality for Mr Fillon, who gathered 67 per cent of the votes to be the LR’s presidential candidate.

Mr Fillon is now the great favourite for the “real thing” in April next year. With his radical rightist, though softer programme, he will appeal to a larger electorate and probably defeat Marine Le Pen.

Today, on the Socialist side, Mr Macron, the 38-year-old former economy minister (who worked as an investment banker for Rothschild), believes that he has witnessed the “emptiness” of France’s political system; he wants to “bring optimism” to the country. Macron’s party “En Marche!” (“On the Move!”) directly challenges Mr Hollande’s candidature.

After winning the first round with a large margin, Mr Fillon declared: “My project will trigger a new hope,” adding: “Everywhere my fellow citizens told me they wanted change, authority and being respected.”

These three points may take him to Elysée Palace a few months from now. What really differentiates him from his opponents (Mr Juppé and Mr Hollande in particular), are his views on Russia.

During Mr Hollande’s presidency, the Russian President has been made a demon. Mr Fillon asserted that it was “ridiculous to portray Vladimir Putin as a monster with hands full of blood”. The presidential candidate also called for an end of EU sanctions against Russia as he sees Mr Putin as an “indispensable ally” against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, advocating that France should support Bashar al-Assad against ISIS while helping the Syrian Christians.

Mr Hollande’s anti-Putin campaign had taken such proportions that two Mistral-class helicopter carriers, which had been ordered (and paid for) by Moscow were never delivered to the Russian Navy. The deal had been signed in January 2011 by Mr Juppé, then defence minister.

Mr Hollande decided to refund Moscow and eventually, the two Mistrals were resold to Egypt (did Saudi Arabia paid the bill?). The latest gossip is that Egypt will sell them back to Moscow because the ships were fitted to Russian specifications. What an irony it would be.

After the second round, Mr Fillon told his electors: “I will take up an unusual challenge for France, to tell the truth and completely change its software.”

He will probably become the next French President, but to change the software may not be so easy.

Further, the crisis is probably here to stay. A commentator who advised Mr Sarkozy in the past analysed in Le Figaro: “The fall of François Hollande is only the ultimate expression of a French political malaise, far deeper malaise”.

Mr Fillon or whoever wins will have to deal with this next year.

Tags: us election, brexit vote, francois hollande