It’s being called “Black Sunday” or as French President Francois Hollande calls it “Dimanche noir,” but whatever language you use, in political terms France’s local municipal elections this past weekend have proven humiliating for Hollande and his Socialist party.
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Not only has Hollande’s party lost control of what had been socialist strongholds in towns such as Toulouse, Reims and Saint Etienne but the polls also gave historic gains to the country’s center right and in particular the far right National Front party.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault is widely expected to be made the chief scapegoat for the government's failures. He glumly declared after the ballots were tallied, “the message the voters have sent is very clear and must be clearly heard." That probably means “au revoir” Monsieur Ayrault.
In 2012 Francois Hollande had been swept to victory as French president on the back of an economic recession in the eurozone that many voters blamed on former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s pro-capitalist agenda and under-regulated banks that took big risks and lost.
On his very first trip to a foreign country as president, Hollande’s plane was hit by lightning forcing him to turn back. It was a sign of things to come.
The President’s promise of a new “people’s” government has done nothing to jumpstart a static economy that grew by just 0.3% last year, nor has it put a dent in an unemployment rate that still stands north of 10%. There is also anger over perceived government softness on issues such as immigration and crime.
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Hollande has also made promises to cut spending by more than $68 billion within three years under what he calls a responsibility pact, but he has yet to enact those cuts and the latest figures show France's deficit is higher than expected.
Any turning back on his pledge to cut spending could see Hollande lose a vote of confidence within his own party but severe austerity measures could also put the French economy deeper into the quagmire.
Now it’s down to Mr. Hollande who is under pressure to make some decisive moves, moves that he had hoped to put off until after European elections in May.
If Prime Minister Ayrault is sent packing he could be replaced by the tough-talking interior minister Manuel Valls, but he’s not very popular with the Left Wing of the Socialist Party. A scheduled meeting between Valls and Hollande at the Elysee Palace was reportedly put off with no explanation.
Other potential candidates include defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who served as a prime minister under François Mitterrand in the 1980s.
And what would a French political story be without a bit of sex and drama?
A reshuffle could lead to Ségolène Royal, the mother of Hollande's four children, return to the political scene. She was reportedly blocked from the cabinet after Valérie Trierweiler, Hollande's ex-girlfriend, had wielded a veto over her inclusion.
With the country’s economy struggling, a pension deficit predicted to reach $28.4 billion by 2020 and a proposed 75% tax rate for the rich that has millionaires running for the Swiss Alps, Mr. Hollande, who is notoriously indecisive, has his work cut out for him.