Report December 2014 (Sarkozy, Shop openings and industry shut-downs, Anti-Semitism)

Restless Sarkozy: Re-elected Party Head Promises to Unwind the Socialist Presidency

France, 20 Nov – 19 Dec 2014

Sarkozy head of party again, Socialists and National Front on the defensive ++ Shop openings and industry shut-downs ++ Violence and anti-Semitism.
by Matthieu Choblet

Sarkozy head of party again, Socialists and National Front on the defensive

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was (re-)elected head of the opposition party UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) with 64.5 percent of the votes, besting two rival candidates. Over 50 percent of the 268,000 party members participated via Internet. “64 percent is not the triumphal return Sarkozy was hoping for”, grumbled a spokesperson of the governing Socialist Party (PS). And yet, one of the most notorious politicians of the last decade is back on top at France’s major right-wing party.

The UMP was founded in 2002 by Jacques Chirac, former nominee for the Presidential election, with the aim to create a single right-wing party uniting pro-Europeanists and conservative sovereignists. Thereafter, the UMP was the ruling party for ten years until it collapsed in 2012: after Sarkozy’s defeat at the Presidential elections and the loss of the parliamentary majority, the party faced severe financial problems and its leadership was divided by a row over Sarkozy’s succession.

Two years on, Sarkozy, who once announced his definitive retreat from politics, has returned – to save France from its “desperate” situation, as he pleaded on TV. His next step will be the restoration and, in his own words, “transformation” of the UMP, but no one will expect him to leave it at that. Indeed, the Party was initially meant to be the “Union for a Presidential Majority” – and the 2017 elections are already looming.

The old and new head of the UMP did not hesitate to list all the benefits his return to power would bring: more severe punishments for delinquents (notwithstanding that the French prison population almost doubled in the last 13 years); the retraction of the upcoming territorial reform, which is meant to decrease the number of administrative regions; a cutback in the number of civil servants, particularly in the school sector. In order to do so Sarkozy will attempt to unify all those who abhor current President Hollande, be they liberals, conservatives or voters of the far-right National Front (FN).

Meanwhile, the nationalist party is fighting tooth and nail too keep up. As if by chance, the FN organised its own inner-party election the same weekend the UMP elections took place, though with just one candidate. Marine Le Pen celebrated a 100 percent victory and also the financial rescue of her party. Le Pen, who is an eager defendant of Vladimir Putin’s politics in Eastern Europe, received a 9 mio. Euro loan from a Moscow-based bank.

Shop openings and industry shut downs

The so-called pact of responsibility (see Report March 2014/2), a 30 billion tax exoneration for employers, in exchange for more employment, seems to have failed. As the Minister of Economy Emmanuel Macron declared: “The word ‘responsibility’ is a part of ‘responsibility pact’, yet few job agreements have been signed”. Instead, the Minister is pushing through another economic reform, dubbed “Macron law”, which is to become a catch-all solution for the renewed liberalisation of the French economy.

Most debated is the scheme to allow Sunday openings. A report of the Parisian city council contests Macron’s promises that the measure will help create new jobs. Critics fear that Sunday openings will not boost employment but rather make it even more difficult for employees to reconcile work and family. One way or another, the law is expected to affect the commerce on high streets and large retail chains the most, where employment tends to be insecure. Other measures include the opening up of bus services and the legal profession.

While many of the current governmental measures aim at France’s growing tertiary sector (counting for more than 70 percent of French employment), President Hollande visited the industrial site of Florange in the eastern French region of Lorraine. In doing so the President kept his promise to return once a year to the site that became a symbol for a desperate struggle against industrial decline. In 2012 Hollande had promised to make sure that if a corporate group decided it did not need a particular production unit any more, it would have to search for a buyer before closing it down. The decision came too late though for most of the metal workers of Florange. The owner, Laksmi Mittal, closed down the last blast furnaces.

Most of the formerly 629 employees are now either retired or were given another task as part of an employment scheme in the steel factoring business. Mittal committed himself to ensure the conversion of Florange into a modern industry site. Yet, with the furnace gone, the remaining plant permanently encounters new problems.

Violence and anti-Semitism

A brutal attack in a south-eastern suburb of Paris fuelled the ongoing debate on how the French republic could possibly integrate a violent and religiously radicalised youth and at the same time provide safety for all of its citizens. A young couple was attacked and robbed in its apartment, because they were Jewish. The girl was raped.

The aggression brought back the chilling memories of the case of Ilan Hallimi. In 2006 a gang calling itself “the Barbarians” had abducted the young Jewish man, tortured and finally killed him after three weeks of atrocity. This also calls into mind other assaults during the last years, committed by Islamic fundamentalists of French origin. In response, the Socialist Party announced that it would make the fight against racism and anti-Semitism “a national concern”. The party hopes to develop a scheme that tackles both right-wing and religious extremism.

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