Key Political Players in France
François Hollande: The PS leader won the run-off presidential election in May 2012, and began his term with a strong popular mandate that was confirmed by the victory of the PS in the June parliamentary elections. In contrast to the populist tone of his campaign, Hollande’s governing style has been characterized by cautious pragmatism, an approach that has alienated his supporters on the left and disappointed centrist voters who are frustrated by his failure to tackle essential structural reforms. Hollande’s approval rating had plummeted to less than 20%, the lowest for any president in the post-World War II period. The EU’s partial retreat from its hard-line insistence on austerity provided the president with some temporary fiscal breathing space, but the economy has not responded as hoped. Following painful defeats at local elections held in March and European elections conducted in late May, the president has adopted a more centrist posture, promising to deliver both a reduction in the payroll taxes owed by business and a cut in the corporate tax rate. However, with sluggish growth contributing to revenues shortfalls that have undermined confidence in the government’s ability to hit its fiscal targets, the PS administration is under pressure to cut spending, a step that will further alienate the Socialists’ base and will likely provoke episodes of labor-related unrest.
Manuel Valls: Responsibility for hitting the fiscal targets negotiated with the European Commission has been handed to Manuel Valls, a former interior minister and a member of Socialist Party’s right wing who replaced Jean-Marc Ayrault as prime minister in late March 2014. Valls has already announced the extension of the four-year-old public-sector wage freeze at least through 2017, to the consternation of some of his fellow Cabinet members. The European Commission has repeatedly called upon the government to move aggressively on a structural reform program that includes reducing the public sector’s role in the economy, cutting red-tape, and addressing labor-market rigidities that stunt the growth of employment. Valls appears to be prepared to do battle with his party colleagues, if necessary, to achieve those objectives, but it is doubtful that he can secure the necessary backing for such an agenda, and he could become expendable in the likely event that pushback from labor unions contributes to a failure of will on the part of President Hollande.
Socialist Party: The PS scored a twin victory at elections held in 2012, as Hollande won the presidency and the party won 280 seats in the 577-member National Assembly. Although more accommodating of union demands and protective of the social safety net than the center-right UMP, the PS is generally inclined to do what is necessary to meet the obligations arising from France’s membership in the EU and the euro zone. In any case, the potential for a significant deviation from the established policy course to trigger market volatility will discourage the government from tacking hard to the left on economic matters.
Union for a Popular Movement: Despite losing control of both the presidency and the Parliament at the 2012 elections, the center-right UMP remains large enough to create serious problems for Hollande and the Socialists, especially if policy reversals by the PS end up costing it the backing of its center-left allies. Formed through the merger of several center-right parties in 2002, the UMP draws on a broad range of political traditions, but its policy approach in large part has reflected the Gaullist and liberal perspectives of its main constituent parties. The party generally favors market-based economic policies, but occasionally moves in the direction of economic nationalism, a manifestation of the Gaullist emphasis on French independence. The UMP is in a strong position to reclaim the presidency in 2017, but factional strife and a party financing scandal could undermine its chances of winning an outright majority of seats in the National Assembly.
National Front: The FN put in a strong performance at local elections held in March 2014 and scored a stunning victory at European elections conducted in late May. With the PS clearly in serious trouble and the UMP distracted by infighting and embroiled in a party financing scandal, the FN could be in a position to vie for a share of national power at the 2017 elections. However, party leader Marine Le Pen’s chances of winning the presidency are not very good, not least because PS voters would undoubtedly throw their support behind a UMP candidate in the event of a run-off election that includes the FN leader, just as they did in 2002, when Jacques Chirac trounced FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen by a better than four-to-one margin in that year’s second round of presidential voting. Marine Le Pen has made an effort to move the FN closer to the political mainstream since succeeding her father as party leader, most notably in the case of the party’s adoption of a less hard-line stance on immigration. However, the party’s positions on matters related to European integration—Le Pen has proposed France’s withdrawal from the euro zone, favors the restoration of barriers to the free movement of labor within the EU, and advocates the imposition of protectionist trade barriers—represent an obvious impediment to the establishment of a formal political alliance with the UMP.
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