François Hollande baffles France with his race to the centre

Anne-Sylvaine Chassany
French President Francois Hollande looks on during a conference in Milan, Oct. 8, 2014.

After four years in the Elysée Palace, François Hollande has become a political puzzle: elected president after designating finance as his enemy and promising to tax the wealthy, the socialist leader is entering the final stretch of his term praised by employers and vilified by unions.

The latest cause of ire in his own camp is a planned labor reform that, if adopted, would be the boldest attempt by any postwar government to inject flexibility into France's two-tier jobs market.

The measures, which allow for extending working hours and capping the cost of wrongful dismissals, prompted a revolt in the socialist party and full union opposition.

"Enough is enough," thundered Martine Aubry, instigator of the 35-hour maximum working week and standard-bearer of the left.

Worse, student organisations, traditionally the shock troops of political protest, are planning to join a day of nationwide demonstrations on Wednesday that threaten to paralyse the country's schools and public transport.

The row has left political analysts baffled about the president's political strategy. One year out from the next presidential election and with his popularity ratings at rock bottom, he needs to rally the left behind his candidacy, or risk being easily beaten into the run-off by centre-right and far-right rivals. Yet he continues to stoke divisions within his government and the Socialist party. It is all the more surprising, given Mr Hollande built his career being a malleable character ready to compromise.

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"François Hollande is an enigma," said Philippe Marlière, political sciences professor at University College in London. "Since 2014, he hasn't stopped making decisions that rattled his own party. But he needs a unified left to qualify for the second round of the presidential election."

At the heart of Mr Hollande's political travails is a single vexing challenge that has hung over his presidency: how to revive a flagging economy that has left the country with stubbornly high unemployment and persistent public deficits in breach of EU rules.

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Mr Hollande shifted towards the political centre two years ago by embracing supply side reforms, including more than €40bn in tax breaks for companies. The move was meant to reduce unemployment, stuck at 10 per cent of the workforce, which Mr Hollande has made a precondition for seeking a second term.

A year later, the government led by prime minister Manuel Valls bypassed rebel socialist MPs and forced a liberalising law through parliament to extend Sunday trading hours and opened a few sectors to competition.

The left has also been enraged by a plan to strip French-born citizens of their nationality if they are convicted of terrorist crimes — a measure backed by Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front party and former centre-right president Nicolas Sarkozy.

At one stage this year, Mr Hollande appeared to be tacking back to the left. A €2bn plan to fund 500,000 training schemes for the unemployed, announced in January, was classic socialist interventionism. He then brought back into his government Jean-Marc Ayrault, the former prime minister he had ousted to embark on his pro-business shift.

But the new labor reform has upended assumptions.

"Maybe he truly believes in his reforms after all, but I can't see the political logic of introducing such a divisive bill a year before the elections," said Laurent Bouvet, professor at Versailles university. Mr Hollande needed every vote on the left to make it to the second round against Ms Le Pen, he added. "It's mathematic."

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Bruno Cautrès, professor at Sciences Po university, suspects Mr Hollande may have given up on the left of his party altogether and is instead focusing on the political centre.

The president has revived old tensions at the top of the socialist party machine much like Michel Rocard, a social democrat prime minister under Mitterrand. "But socialist sympathisers aren't as opposed to economic reforms," Mr Cautrès said, pointing to the popularity among centre-left voters of Emmanuel Macron, the reformist economy minister behind Mr Hollande's supply-side shift.

With an approval rate of only 15 per cent, Mr Hollande's chances of re-election appear dismal. But he appears to be betting that the centre-right nomination will this year be won by Mr Sarkozy, a divisive politician who has been tacking to the far-right to revive his own flagging popularity.

Mr Hollande's strategy may also be aimed at neutralising Alain Juppé — another candidate for the centre-right nomination, but more centrist and much more popular."

"Mr Hollande has no choice but to carry on," said Mr Cautrès. "It's going to be a battle for the centre," he adds. "But of course, this could only work for him if there's some good news on the economic front."