‘France is in crisis and politicians are powerless’

With France plunged into a new political crisis on Monday after the president asked his prime minister to form a new government, The Local took to the streets of Paris to gauge the opinion of the public.

'France is in crisis and politicians are powerless'
The French public were left even more disillusioned with the political leaders after Monday's shock resignation of the government. Photo: AFP

President François Hollande and his Socialist Party were embroiled in yet another political crisis on Monday. 

On Monday, Hollande asked his prime minister, Manuel Valls, to form a new cabinet after two ministers publicly criticized the government's economic policy. 

Hollande’s popularity is already at an all-time low, but with the appointment of Valls as Prime Minister of France, in April, he had hoped to win back some of his electors, and to re-assert his authority.

But things have clearly not gone as he had hoped. On Sunday, the soon-to-be-sacked Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg and Education Minister Benoît Hamon questioned Hollande and Valls economic policy of trying to trim state deficits by imposing €50 billion worth of cuts.

The rebel ministers demanded a change of tack towards growth and more tax cuts for residents.

But for Prime Minister Valls "a line had been crossed", leaving him no choice but to reshuffle the government and oust the rogue ministers.

Karine Bellier, 41, an HR consultant, agreed that Hollande and Valls had to take action.

“Changing the government is the only good option if Hollande wants to keep a hold on it. Arnaud Montebourg is the economy minister, and criticizing the economic policies of the government was out of line. By reshuffling, Hollande shows for the first time some signs of authority and of leadership," she said.

LIVE: Hollande's presidency is in 'disarray'

Gustave Kenedi, a political economy student added: "After this, Hollande hopes to have a united government. The way I see it is that he is sending a clear message to everyone in his party: he will not deviate from the reforms he has announced”.

Kenedi added that the real question now was whether the president of France would have a majority in parliament to support his new government, and to back up these reforms: “If not, we risk a dissolution of the National Assembly, which would be catastrophic, both for him and for the socialist party”.

Many of the people The Local spoke to saw Hollande as a weak president, who was incapable of bringing about change.

“France is already impossible to reform, whatever the government. But it’s worse with Hollande,"  said Michel Torralba, a 35-year-old computer engineer.

"Just take a look at the economy!  We don’t seem to be going in the right direction. We've already changed the prime minister once, and nothing has changed. I’m not expecting more from a new government," he said.

That was a view shared by Jean Talbot, a 47-year-old transport agent who believes that during such a complex economic crisis, the government has no power to do anything. Reshuffling will not bring any new solutions.

"We are in the middle of a crisis, and no politician can really change that, whether on the left or on the right of the political spectrum".

Faced with high levels of unemployment and a stagnant economy, French people are worried and fed up, and they feel the government does not realize how bad it is. 

Alice Blois, a 25-year-old office worker, told The Local “the government spends more time bickering than implementing policies to get people back to work. Changing the government once more only highlights its lack of unity, which we are all suffering from”.

Standing out from all pessimism surrounding France, was retired soldier and journalist Gérard Willaume, who told The Local that whether the government changed or not, between today and tomorrow, he would still support it.

“I believe we are on the right track, but what people don’t get is that it takes time, most of the reforms will only have effect on the long run. The global context is bad, it’s not all Hollande’s fault. For my part I will only judge him in 2017, when we will be able to see whether his reforms have had any results," said Willaume.

by Léa Surugue

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Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

You might not have thought about it too much as you enjoyed an extra day off work, but it is perhaps unexpected that France - proudly secular since 1905 - has so many public holidays based around Catholic festivals.

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

Reader question: Why does France have Catholic holidays like Ascension, Assumption and Toussaints? I thought it was supposed to be a secular republic?

The French Republic is very proud of its secular principles but yet as some readers observed, many public holidays are linked to Catholic celebrations, a reminder of its religious history.

Roughly half of the public holidays in France represent Catholic events: Easter, Ascension (May 26th), Assumption (August 15th), Pentecost (for some people), All Saints’ day (November 1st) and of course Christmas.

If you live in Alsace-Moselle (formerly Alsace-Lorraine) you get two extra holidays, both religious ones – Good Friday (the Friday before Easter) and St Stephen’s Day (December 26th) – more on why that is later.

France’s secular stance takes its roots in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 but was formally codified into law in 1905. 

France does not recognise, pay or subsidise any religion. So French local and national governments are not allowed to finance churches, mosques, synagogues or temples, and religious symbolism is not allowed in State buildings or for representatives of the State.

It is these rules that mean that, for example, French primary schools don’t perform nativity plays at Christmas and French female police officers are not permitted to wear the Muslim headscarf while on duty.

EXPLAINED What does France’s secularism really mean?

The flip side of this is that freedom of worship is also protected in the 1905 law, and everyone is allowed to practice whatever religion they choose in their private life.

The only exception to the secular rules are the three departments of Alsace-Moselle. When the 1905 law was passed the region was part of Germany and only became French again at the end of World War I. As part of the compromise agreed, today bishops, priests, rabbis and pastors have the status of civil servants and the state pays for the maintenance of religious buildings. Religious education in public schools is also preserved.

So all that seems to pretty strongly suggest that Catholic festivals should play no part in France’s holiday calendar and only the secular events – such as the Fête nationale on July 14th or VE Day on May 8th – should remain.

However, by the time secularism was formally codified into law in 1905 there was already a fairly fixed calendar of holidays and festivals – although this had already been slimmed down under the Napoleonic government in 1802 – and suddenly axing popular festivals was likely to go down pretty badly with the population at large.

Essentially then, this was a pragmatic compromise between tradition and secularism and over the years politicians have been understandably reluctant to tell the French they must lose their holidays.

But it’s noticeable that all the religious festivals in the calendar are Christian ones, and while this may reflect France’s history it’s not so representative of the current demographics, where an estimated 10 percent of the population either practice the Muslim faith or have a Muslim family background.

So could we see a scenario when we knock Ascension on the head but make Eid a public holiday?

It’s theoretically possible – in 2015 the French parliament voted through an amendment that would allow the départments of France’s Overseas Territories (Martinique, Gaudeloupe, Mayotte, Réunion and French Guiana) to switch a Catholic bank holiday for another religious celebration to suit different faiths in the local population.

However none of the overseas départements has yet made that move. 

A fresh amendment would be required to make the same move in mainland France, and there appears to be little political appetite for that at present.

What are France’s public holidays? 

  • January 1st: New Year’s Day
  • Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Monday, only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
  • Easter Monday (movable date)
  • May 1st: May Day
  • May 8th: VE Day
  • May 26th: Ascension Day
  • Pentecost (movable date and no longer an official holiday)
  • July 14th – Bastille Day
  • August 15th – Assumption
  • November 1st – All Saints
  • November 11th – Armistice Day
  • December 25th – Christmas
  • December 26th – St Stephen’s Day (only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)