In France, Growing Protests Could Hamper Economic Reforms

6 MINS READFeb 5, 2014 | 11:01 GMT
In France, Growing Protests Could Hamper Economic Reforms
Supporters of the "La Manif Pour Tous" (Protest for Everyone) movement demonstrate to defend their vision of the traditional family on Feb. 2 in Paris.

Amid the lingering economic crisis in France, grassroots movements that originally pursued specific agendas — such as anti-tax or anti-gay groups — over the past few months have started to join forces to protest broader issues. This is creating tensions within the French government, which is trying to preserve its unity while appeasing a heterogeneous group of protesters. For instance, the French government announced Feb. 3 that the controversial Family Law — which, among other things, would have expanded the possibilities of gay couples having children — would not be approved this year and would be reconsidered in 2015. The announcement came after two large anti-government demonstrations in Paris and other major French cities on Jan. 25 and Feb. 2.

The protests are not a threat to the survival of the French government. However, voters are likely to punish the ruling Socialists in municipal elections in March and in European elections in May. This will make the Socialists less able to implement deep reforms in the French economy. 

The European economic crisis is taking its toll in France. In early January, President Francois Hollande took both the center-left and the center-right by surprise when he announced a series of measures to boost the French economy, including substantial spending cuts as well as tax reductions for companies hiring new workers. These measures marked a reversal for the French government, which spent its first 18 months in office promising to avoid large spending cuts like those applied in southern Europe. A few weeks later, Paris announced that unemployment had reached 11.1 percent in December, invalidating Hollande's promise to reduce unemployment in 2013. The French government currently is holding talks with business groups and trade unions and is expected to announce the details of its anti-crisis plan by mid-year. The measures are meant to appease a population that is increasingly dissatisfied with Hollande's administration.

Locator Map - France

Causes of Discontent in France

In broad terms, there are two basic sources of social unrest in France. The first and most important is the country's economic situation. With a stagnating economy and rising unemployment, most French believe that their country is not going in the right direction (support for the president is usually below 30 percent). More important, Hollande's original set of policies relied mostly on tax hikes and mild spending cuts. Most sectors of French society have been affected by rising taxes in the context of stagnating economic activity. This explains why people from very different backgrounds — from truck drivers and farmers in Brittany (the so-called Red Caps) to middle-class professionals in Paris — have begun joining forces to protest against the government.

The second source of social discontent is related to some of Hollande's policies on social and family issues. The most conservative sectors of French society oppose measures such as the legalization of gay marriage, which was approved in 2013, and allowing artificial insemination for homosexual couples — a measure considered during the drafting of the Family Law. According to French police, on Feb. 2 some 80,000 people gathered in Paris and some 20,000 took to the streets in Lyon (protesters gave considerably higher numbers) to protest the Family Law. Some argue that these policies "undermine France's traditional values," while some say that the country has more urgent needs.

Although these groups are considerably different, they often protest together. This reveals the evolution of grassroots movements in France from a focus on single issues to broader social and economic concerns. The French government is so unpopular, and public discontent is so high, that an anti-gay group can protest alongside an anti-taxes group since both reject the government. Protests are common in France, but the heterogeneity of protesters is noteworthy. The "day of wrath" protest against Hollande that took place Jan. 25 brought together a diverse group of far-right activists, anti-gay groups, supporters of the controversial French comedian Dieudonne (who was recently accused of anti-Semitism) and anti-tax groups. Some 50 different organizations participated in this rally, which, according to the police, attracted 17,000 people.

Frequently, grassroots movements' main challenge is to survive once their original goals are obtained and to maintain the organizational ability to stay together. These groups will need more than their rejection of the government to stay alive, but as the economic crisis lingers, protests will remain frequent in the coming months.

France's GDP, 2000-2014

France's GDP, 2000-2014

The Protests' Effects on Upcoming Elections

The French economy was slowing down long before the beginning of the eurozone crisis as the country struggled to remain competitive and reduce public spending. Previous administrations also faced limited success when applying structural reforms, sometimes because of pressure from unions and employers' organizations, and sometimes under popular pressure. However, the eurozone crisis has made things more difficult, because Paris is now being forced to apply reforms amid rising social unrest.

So far, the French government is not in danger. Unlike parliamentary systems such as those in Italy or the Netherlands, the French semi-presidential system was designed to be stable, and Hollande has strong backing in the French parliament. But the ruling Socialist party will probably experience significant defeats in the upcoming municipal elections and in EU parliamentary elections.

Protesters' votes will go primarily to two parties: the center-right Union for a Popular Movement (whose former leader, Nicolas Sarkozy, wants to return to the Elysee in 2017) and the far-right National Front. The National Front does not have high hopes for the municipal elections, as France's two-round system is precisely designed to benefit mainstream parties. (Even if the National Front makes it to the second round, moderate voters are likely to vote for center-right or center-left candidates.) However, the party will probably perform very well in the EU parliamentary elections, where the proportional system is used. The National Front hopes to win enough seats in the EU Parliament to form a relatively large coalition with the Dutch Party of Freedom and similar nationalist parties. These parties hope to form a large enough bloc in the EU Parliament to freeze the process of European integration.

This would put Hollande in a delicate situation. While his role as president will not be at stake, Hollande's ability to implement reforms will probably wane. If the president is perceived as weak, his opponents — from grassroots movements to trade unions and center-right and right-wing parties — will feel more confident in protesting the president's proposals. Also, frictions within the French government will increase as moderates fight with left-wing factions on what policies to apply. So far, Hollande has managed to keep dissent within his party at tolerable levels, but the future cohesion of the Socialist party will be key to maintaining a functional government. In other words, Hollande's main threat is to be perceived as a lame duck two and a half years before the end of his constitutional mandate. This could seriously undermine his "responsibility pact" and any other additional measures designed to fight unemployment.

In a bid for the support of conservative and nationalist voters, the Elysee is likely to strengthen its actions against minorities and immigrants. Expulsions of migrants from the Roma minority reached record levels in 2013, and crackdowns will probably increase this year. France will eventually seek to apply additional controls on the arrival of foreign workers. Paris will also probably refrain from promoting reforms on sensitive social issues, trying to show full commitment to the creation of jobs. 

In broad terms, France will remain committed to the process of European integration, but domestic opposition to the euro and the free movement of goods and people in Europe will increase unless Hollande manages to regain social confidence in his government. In the long run, this growing opposition could make the Elysee reconsider France's role within the European Union.

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