French Socialist President François Hollande returned from his summer vacation a few days ago. He has a lot of work to do, into a stiff headwind of criticism from the conservative opposition and the Left Front, and public opinion polls showing that many of the French people doubt his abilities.
He began with international affairs, notably Syria. The opposition have reproached him for a lack of action while France is chair nation of the UN Security Council, but on Monday he held informal talks with the Syrian opposition’s new international mediator. Hollande wants a political solution in Syria, based on President Bashir Al-Assad’s departure.
He also has the euro crisis to face. Despite their differences, he will try to present a united front with German Chancellor Angela Merkel this Thursday ahead of a fateful few weeks for Greece’s eurozone future. Merkel will then host the Greek prime minister in Berlin, then Hollande will see him, on Saturday, in Paris.
But the French people want him to turn his attention to matters at home. He has already kept some of his campaign promises, and undone measures taken by his predecessor’s government. Among the heavy tasks he has yet to accomplish, he needs to decide next year’s budget.
Unemployment is still rising in France and growth is at zero but Hollande has to find savings of 33 billion euros to reduce the deficit to 3 percent from 4.5 percent now.
This economist says: “We’ve never known things to be as difficult as this. Taxes have to rise, though French purchasing power is already stretched. Public spending has to be reduced although the French are intently asking for more to overcome their economic difficulty.”
Petrol prices are an important part of that difficulty, with unleaded costing up to two euros a litre or more. One of Hollande’s election promises was to freeze prices that have been shooting up. He has compromised with a modest and temporary lowering of state tax on petrol.
He also applied a partial measure on the French favourite savings account, the Livret A, the interest on which is tax-free. He promised to double the ceiling on it, to use inflow to fund social housing, but so far he has upped it by a quarter, to just over 19,000 euros.
Public order is another key subject. The Socialists’ approach is looking similar to that of the previous government: tough, after the handling of rioting in a poor part of the city of Amiens and breaking up Roma gypsy camps. A meeting today was called to decide how to restore the Hollande government’s image and to work on France’s future Roma policy.
We interviewed minister for Women’s rights and spokesperson for the government Najat Vallaud-Belkacem.
Gianni Maggi, euronews: Early criticism of the new government’s first 100 days has increased, not only from the opposition and certain commentators but also from parties more to the left than the government itself. How do you in the government view the first few months of activities?
Najat Vallaud Belkacem: We have not stopped for a minute, through decrees: responding to the urgency of French people’s purchasing power, giving the minimum wage a helpful nudge, re-evaluating the allowance for going back to school; we have stuck to our commitment to make it possible once more for people who have been working for a long time to retire. Above all we have applied all the commitments we made to govern in a different way, which is extremely important. All that contributes enormously to making our mark.
euronews: There are several difficult dossiers waiting, keeping the heat up after the return from the holidays. What are the government’s priorities?
NVB: We’re coming out of a ministers’ council at which we reviewed all the texts we are going to adopt. These are eminently important reforms. We are going to start with an extraordinary session of parliament in the second half of September, to be dedicated to two subjects that are the main worries of the French people: jobs and housing. We are going to create 150,000 jobs of the future which are meant for young people. As for housing, because far too many French people are badly housed or not housed at all; that’s why we have to create 150,000 jobs per year. Right afterwards we’ll adopt a regulation in the price of energy, because we see that what puts a great pressure on French wallets is gas and electricity. And there will be other. Before the end of this year, in autumn, the major law on school reform will be enacted, a real structural reform that the country needs.
euronews: With the financial law of 2013, should French people expect real austerity measures, comparable to those in Italy or Spain?
NVB: We don’t want austerity, really, it’s not only a problem of words or semantics, it’s a political problem. We figure that if we want to put the country on the rails to growth, first the purchasing power of the French has to be supported, not weakened. We absolutely have to give ourselves prospects, for example to return to employment. The state has to support sectors and invest in sectors that are likely to create jobs. Austerity goes against everything I’ve just talked about. Austerity is saying: ‘we have to stop breathing, we have to cut, cut, cut.’ Yes, all right, we will cut, but nothing will come of it. We have no chance of bouncing back after austerity. We’d die in good financial health, certainly, but we’d die, whereas our intention is to live.
euronews: One criticism is that till now the response to security problems has been exclusively through police deployment, and that this isn’t really that different from the previous government.
NVB: What we say is extremely clear. Uncivil behaviour and delinquency has to be fought firmly. But at the same time territories have to be given an outlook. We bring another response that is not only one of security, and that is what the minister in charge of urban policy, François Lamy, did today in the Council; he presented his work programme, which is going to consist of using all the legal instruments, for example the future jobs that I’ve just mentioned, the construction of housing that I talked about, and so on – to invest in such a way as to reinforce, and then later to invent other ways to collaborate, so that, quite simply, these residents live in neighbourhoods that are made peaceful, and that at the same time have things to look forward to.