The popularity of French President François Hollande has fallen lower than ever. So low, in fact, that on Armistice Day, November 11, when the president participated in the commemoration ceremonies marking the end of the First World War, he was booed and jeered at by an angry crowd. It was an incident unheard of dimensions. Du jamais vu, as they say in France. For the French, the November 11 ceremonies are sacred, and the president, symbolizing the nation, acts as its high priest rather than as a politician representing a political agenda.
It was the first time ever that a French head of state was booed on Armistice Day. The demonstrators shouted "Hollande resign!" and "Socialist dictatorship" and called for a "French Spring." Police arrested about 70 people, but President Hollande and Interior minister Manuel Valls fled from the scene as soon as they had laid down their wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
French President François Hollande has the lowest popularity ratings of any president since the establishment of France's Fifth Republic in 1958. (Image source: Parti Socialiste)
Some of the demonstrators were wearing red caps or bonnets rouges. The Bonnets Rouges movement is spreading rapidly. It began a few weeks ago in the western region of Brittany with Breton farmers and truck drivers protesting the French government's intention to introduce a new eco-tax of 0.1 euro per kilometer. The government has suspended its plans, but the protests continue and have turned into an anti-tax movement. The red caps refer to the hats Breton farmers wore in the late 17th century when they were protesting new taxes introduced by the French King Louis XIV and his finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert.
Hollande's popularity ratings have fallen to below 25% – the lowest level of any president since the establishment of France's Fifth Republic in 1958. During the past three years, taxes in France have increased by 70 billion euros; government debt has risen to almost 100% of GDP, and unemployment has reached 12%.
Pundits expect that Hollande might soon replace Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. Replacing the prime minister is a trick often used by unpopular presidents. They blame the prime minister for their own unpopularity, hoping that a new man or woman at the helm of the government might restore the people's confidence in the authorities.
The media mention three names as possible replacements for Ayrault. There is the leftist Claude Bartolone, the Speaker of the Lower House of the French parliament, the Assemblée Nationale, but many consider him too far to the left. There is Interior Minister Valls, who is the most popular of the Socialist ministers but who is considered too much of a right-winger by the rest of the Socialist Party. And there is Martine Aubry, a former Socialist minister in the late 1990s and currently the popular Mayor of Lille. Aubry is the daughter of Jacques Delors, a former French finance minister and former president of the European Commission, who, in the late 1980s was the great adversary of Margaret Thatcher in his attempts to impose European federalism on Britain.
It is unlikely, however, that Aubry would want the job of French prime minister at this stage. The 63-year old politician is ambitious and apparently has presidential aspirations. The position of prime minister is an excellent platform for every politician wanting to become president. However, the Socialist Party is expected to lose next March's municipal elections as well as next May's European elections. Hence, Aubry, who is as shrewd as her father, would prefer to become prime minister after next year's elections, so that these elections will not reflect badly on her, and she can use the post-election period as a good starting point to rebuild her party. If she succeeds in doing that, she might be able to oust the unpopular Hollande as the Socialist candidate for the 2017 presidential elections.
There is, however, another political daughter who has set her eyes on the 2017 presidential elections. She is Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the far-right Front National party. Since Marine le Pen succeeded her father as leader of the FN in 2011, she has moved her party away from the extremist fringe, distancing herself from its racist and anti-Semitic past. Under her leadership, the FN has become the most popular party in the French opinion polls. With the center-right UMP party still in tatters after former president Nicolas Sarkozy's disastrous years in power, the FN is slowly filling the void on the French political right.
There is a possibility that the next presidential contest in France will be fought between the two political daughters, Martine and Marine. Neither lady is a political friend of America. Aubry, like her father, believes in a strong and federal European Union (EU) under Franco-German leadership, while Le Pen believes in a strong France, which together with Germany and Russia, should take the lead in countering Anglo-Saxon world domination. Marine Le Pen, however, opposes the EU. Bearing this in mind, many think it is better that Le Pen gain the upper hand. Without the EU, countries such as the Netherlands, Portugal, Italy, Denmark, Ireland, Poland, and obviously Britain, retain their national sovereignty and at least the possibility of strengthening their pan-Atlantic ties.