Just as Francois Hollande was trying to persuade the French that life was getting better ahead of next year’s election, outbreaks of street violence and strikes are undermining his authority.
After months of protests against Hollande’s government, some demonstrators are getting aggressive with truck drivers illegally blocking oil refineries, burning tires and triggering gas lines across the country while the offices of Hollande’s Socialist Party have been vandalized in several cities across the country, most recently on Monday. News channels have been looping footage of a group of young men chasing two police officers from their patrol car and setting the vehicle on fire.
With his popularity already at record lows, the clashes are causing voters to question Hollande’s ability to maintain control. Hundreds of police officers have been injured during demonstrations -- all while the president wields extraordinary powers to uphold law and order under a state of emergency introduced after last year’s terrorist attacks.
“The images are very bad for the government,” Bruno Jeanbart, a pollster at OpinionWay in Paris, said in a telephone interview. “People see this and they get the sense that we’re almost in a state of civil war where anything is possible. All of this is reinforcing the feeling that we’re practically in the post-Hollande era already.”
Facing the G-7
With Hollande heading to Japan to meet with his fellow Group of Seven leaders on Thursday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Finance Minister Michel Sapin have vowed to maintain gas supplies in an attempt to show the government remains in charge. Some 678 gas stations faced shortages or lacked any fuel Monday, up from 336 a day earlier, according to Total, the nation’s largest oil company.
“We must prevent the French population from being taken hostage,” Sapin said Monday. “There will be no tolerance on the part of the government.”
Hollande had been hoping that hosting the Euro 2016 soccer tournament this summer would raise voters’ spirits ahead of the presidential election campaign, but violence at the French cup final this weekend suggested it’s more likely to be another test for security forces. Fans of Paris Saint Germain and Olympique Marseille started fires in the stands at the national stadium in Paris Saturday, and motorcycle helmets, glass bottles and PVC pipes were smuggled in by spectators, according to AFP.
Betting on jobs
Both the refinery strikes and the wider demonstrations are in protest against Hollande’s efforts to ease restrictions on firing and reduce overtime pay. Struggling with an unemployment rate that is roughly twice the level of the U.K. and Germany, the Socialist government is seeking ways to encourage hiring. Yet Hollande has reaped a double failure: he’s watered down the measures, provoking the ire of business, and still triggered violence on the streets.
“Reforming the French economy is not impossible if the president has a popular mandate, a parliamentary majority and a long-term vision,” said Bruno Cavalier, chief economist at Oddo Securities in Paris. “With President Hollande, all three factors are missing.”
Hollande has pinned his hopes for re-election on the economy, betting that a recovery will arrive with enough force to save his presidency. Yet even if unemployment were to come down, Hollande could be undermined by his inability to impose order on the streets.
Three quarters of voters believe the government has not been tough enough in cracking down on rioters at demonstrations and acts of vandalism that they cause, according to an Elabe poll for BFM TV published May 18.
“From the beginning, he lacked respect,” Jeanbart said. “And the recent incidents have made that image even worse.”