Special Report: A fractured France at the crossroad of multiple risks
Since the beginning of 2015, the socio-political situation in France has become strained following a string of terrorist attacks as well as a wave of anti-government protests. Political violence and unrest coupled with stagnating macroeconomic performances have weakened the ruling Parti Socialiste (PS) and ushered in a “new normal”.
As France is set to ready itself for the May 2017 presidential elections, the country is at the crossroad of several political risks increasing the potential for relatively ineffective policy making as well as social and communal tensions. While pre-elections rivalries will soar and the government-unions power play will continue to lead to periodic unrest, the elevated terrorist threat generated by radical Islamist will remain a major issue weighing on the political debate and everyday life.
The left: a free-for-all fight in the Socialist Party
A key aspect defining the last months of President Hollande presidency will be the internal fighting pitting rival camps of the PS as the party is preparing to hold its primaries in January 2017.
With extremely low approval ratings, the political future of President Hollande appears to be set. As the PS is struggling to formulate a strategy to arrive at the elections’ second round, the president appears to be an obstacle rather than a support to his party. In itself this is a new situation in France; however, while the political situation of President Hollande is unlikely to improve in the coming six months, it is likely that his allies may try to push him to run in an attempt to safeguard the interests of the socio-democrat branch of the PS.
Political tensions linked to the primary have been increasing since former minister of industry Arnaud Montebour decided to run for the primaries. Socialist household names such as Cambadelis, the head of the party, had been lobbying for political primary aimed at supporting president Hollande’s re-election.
Still, with several camps emerging within the PS there is a strong likelihood of enhanced infightings leading to a weakened centre-left. Those supporting President Hollande are expected to call for continuity with current government decisions and state that the results of reforms implemented in Hollande’s first mandate will only be visible after 2017. This line is unlikely to garner substantial support within the PS social base and this fracture is expected to lead to a further weakening of the party.
The fracture of the PS is likely to materialise along the lines of the key personalities currently holding strategic positions within the party. While remaining loyal to the president, Prime Minister Valls has gradually been countering rival voices within the PS in a bid to show his political strength and prepare a potential run in the primaries. There is also a potential likelihood for Martine Aubry, the runner-up in the 2011 primaries to by Hollande, to try to obtain the party’s blessing to run for president. As the centre-left is already slipping in polls, these political tensions are likely to further diminish the chances for the party to mount a strong campaign ahead of 2017.
Emmanuel Macron, former minister of finance, also generates a major threat to the PS. By leaving the government in September 2016, he put in motion the strategy that he initiated in April when he started his political movement. Macron has repeatedly stated that he doesn’t consider himself a socialist and that he wants to overcome the left-right debate. Economically liberal, Macron has not yet officially started his political campaign. However, the PS is worried that he may further weaken the party by depriving it of its centrist support base. Cambadelis already warned PS members of parliament that they would be excluded from the party should they support Macron’s movement.
The centre-right: lots of candidates, few ideas
In November 2016, the centre-right Les Republicains (LR) party will hold its primaries ahead of the May 2017 elections. The situation among the leading opposition party mirrors the weakened PS. With seven candidates at the primaries, the party appears bent on adopting an electoral strategy unlikely to substantially reform the French political system.
The LR primaries offer a political choice based on two major extremes. On the one hand, it is unlikely that voters will chose to have Nicolas Sarkozy running for a second time. It would be a weak hand against the PS and as the former president has low approval rates and does not have a strong record to support his potential nomination.
On the other hand, Alain Juppe is the front-runner in the party. Juppe is moderate with a strong popular support and he also benefits from the indirect support of other LR household names. However, Juppe is a candidate purely linked to the establishment and would be unlikely to generate the necessary popular movement to reconnect the disillusioned branches of the French society with the action of the government.
The LR also faces a substantial political risk ahead of the 2017 polls. The party is unable to formulate an agenda that breaks with the 2007-2012 socio-economic policies. French electors may question the idea of voting for a party who did not deliver on campaign previous campaign promises. As the PS, the LR is currently betting on getting to the second round of the presidential elections as it is highly likely that it would face the Front National (FN).
In such a situation, the more moderate party will probably win the elections. However, this is a risky strategy as it leaves an increased margin to the right-wing opposition party. In addition, the LR potential inability to charm the French electorate is likely to lead to a renewed government without substantial popular support in the event of a centre-right wing in May 2017.
While the centre-right is struggling to shape a comprehensive reform agenda that address core social, economic and security issues, the FN is gaining in strength. The repeated terrorist attacks have pushed security and migration issues at the forefront of the political debate, a situation that helps a party that has historically built upon those topics.
According to recent polls, Marine Le Pen, leader of the FN, is among the three politicians French voters most want to see at the presidential elections. The party is highly likely to make major gains in 2017 and mount a direct challenge to the establishment PS and LR parties. The risk is that this situation, while unlikely to result in a FN victory, may further polarise the French society.
A fractured society
Events that unfolded in 2015 and 2016 have repeatedly proven that France is increasingly exposed to fractures. Multiple, and at times rival, interest groups compete for national or local recognition and this periodically results in protests or outbursts of violence.
The clashes and riots that occurred during anti-labour market reforms demonstrations that started in March are a key example of these socio-economic tensions. Labour unions have escalated tensions with the government in a show of force that lasted until July when the law was finally adopted.
However, while the method in which unions use their social power base to challenge the government is a traditional one, social tensions came afore as rioters linked to far-left movements repeatedly assaulted police officers and damaged private property. Since the beginning of the wave of protests more than a hundred people were injured, shops and vehicles were torched and large portions of the left-wing electorate became increasingly disillusioned with the ruling authorities.
This growing disillusion was also exemplified by the Nuit Debout (Night Up) movement that started in Paris in March 2016. The movement was a self-defined anti-establishment wave aimed at fostering dialogue among anti-government activists.
Nuit Debout failed to garner sufficient support and after some months of activity the majority of sit-ins were disbanded. However, the traction generated by the initial protests as well as the ensuing riots and violence highlighted the presence of large portions of French youth detached from the political line of governing authorities. This could lead to large volume of abstainers in upcoming elections and result in a long-term challenge to the traditional party politics in France.
On a different level, the fracture within the French society is also exemplified by the presence of deep rooted radical Islamist networks in the country. According to government data, close to 10,000 people are currently involved in activities that support Sunni extremist groups. France is also the western country with the highest number of foreign fighters that left the national territory to join organisations operating in Syria or Iraq.
This comes as a stern reminder of the presence of a strong ideology that developed throughout France and exists in direct rivalry of the national Republican values. Beyond the security risk generated by this situation, there is also a deeper risk of cultural and social tensions.
The migrant crisis: catalysis of political tensions
The discrepancy between government actions and local necessities is exemplified by the crisis in the Calais region. The illegal migrant camp in Calais, also known as “the Jungle”, is a mirror into the wider socio-political tensions and generalised policy stagnation in the country. More than 8,000 illegal migrants reside in a makeshift camp in the Calais area. President Hollande has so far been unable to successfully manage the issue and the local population strongly criticises the government for its inaction.
With soaring crime rates and almost daily violent incidents in the Calais region, the Jungle crisis has come to represent the overall issue with illegal migration in France. The government has promised to relocate the Calais migrants throughout the country.
However, the plan does not substantially address the structural issues linked to the arrival of large numbers of illegal migrants in France. Police operations are periodically carried out in Paris and nationwide to dislodge illegal migrant camps. The situation is increasingly playing a role in the political debate.
France: a priority target for radical Islamists
France is among the top-priority targets for radical Islamist groups operating in Europe or the Middle East. This situation has negatively affected the overall security outlook of the country but has also led to heightened communal tensions within the society and increased economic concerns especially in the touristic sector.
Between January 2015 and July 2016, the country has experienced three high-impact terrorist attacks that left close to 300 dead. These were perpetrated by militants linked to or inspired by the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda (AQ) and highlighted the elevated terrorist threat faced by France.
The wave of major terrorist attacks strongly affected the French society and its trust in authorities’ capacity to respond to the current threat. While in January 2015 and November 2016 the nation united around the government, following the July 2016 Nice attack the level of criticism increased and the society showed an additional degree of fractures caused by the strains of the domestic terrorist threat.
The feeling of insecurity has been accentuated by several single-assailant attacks. In June 2016, an Islamic State linked militant assaulted and killed two police officers in their home south of Paris. In July, two youths radicalised over the internet attacked a Christian Catholic Church in Normandy killing a priest.
These operations increase the feeling of overall insecurity and generate further social tensions. Multiple lower-impact single-assailant attacks have also taken place throughout the country in which perpetrators targeted Jewish personnel and security forces. These incidents highlight the spread of radical Islam and make it more challenging for authorities to successfully secure the territory.
The ongoing terrorist threat has put the French population on edge and raised economic concerns. Since the November 2015 attacks in Paris the domestic touristic sector has been suffering from lower than usual demands. The July 2016 attack in Nice led to a drop in hotel occupancy along the French southern coast. Terrorism will almost certainly remain a main driver of insecurity in France in the coming months and as such the French tourism sector is likely to continue to suffer from a decrease of international travel to the country. This could have an indirect impact on other sectors of the national economy.
France will not face any major instability risk in the foreseeable future. However, the current trends are likely to continue to negatively affect the country and expose it to a set of social, political and economic risks.
The terrorist threat is likely to remain a top concern in France in the medium term. Islamist radicals directly or indirectly associated to Middle Eastern groups will almost certainly try to conduct additional attacks in the country. Authorities have already warned the population of the ongoing nature of the threat. Any upcoming attack will further polarise the population and lead to an additional rift between the French people and the government.
With the aforementioned lack of strong policies generated by the PS and the LR, the presidential elections of 2017 are likely to lead to a renewed weak political establishment. The country will probably continue to be exposed to ongoing labour tensions and anti-government protests. The FN is expected to remain a major opposition force capitalising on the governments’ inability to address French concerns.
This relative weakness of the political establishment along with the disenchantment of the French electorate increase the likelihood that authorities will remain unable to structurally reform the country’s labour market, social security and domestic security areas. As such, one of the main risks faced by France is that in May 2017 the country may face “more of the same” for another full presidential term.
GRI ‘Special Reports’ are in-depth, long-form articles on political risk events around the world. Employing their local expertise and world-class risk training, our experts dig deep and thoroughly examine political risk events for our readers.