Politics heats up French summer

French police officers patrolling a Cannes beach. Extra troops have been deployed in holiday resorts to protect France's valuable tourism industry.
French police officers patrolling a Cannes beach. Extra troops have been deployed in holiday resorts to protect France's valuable tourism industry.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Debates get nasty over government's inability to contain terror threat

Traditionally, this is the week when all politics stops in France, as leaders join the rest of the nation in a month-long summer vacation. Engaging in political disputes during August is not only considered pointless in France; it is also dangerous, for it risks annoying the electorate.

Not this year, however, for political struggles are continuing unabated in Paris, and the tone of the debate has seldom been so ugly.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls believes that the bad-mannered nature of the current political tussle is inspired by politics across the Atlantic, in the United States. Mr Valls decries the "sweeping accusations and the slander" which he claims are examples of the "Trumpisation of French politics", a reference to the US Republican Party's presidential candidate whose campaign consists of denigrating his opponents.

But there are more specific explanations for the poisonous nature of France's political atmosphere, and foremost among them is the collapse of a national consensus over what needs to be done to stop the wave of terrorist attacks which have killed 240 Frenchmen and women over the past 18 months.

In the past, such tragic events strengthened national cohesion around President Francois Hollande. But the attacks in Nice last month changed the national mood, partly because of a growing national perception that the government is incapable of preventing the spread of violence, and partly because the centre-right opposition has decided to criticise the authorities' counter-terrorism record.

The sour mood is made worse by the fact that, for the first time, both the ruling Socialists and their Republican centre-right opponents are holding US-style primaries, to pick their official candidates for the presidential election.

The government has strenuously denied accusations by Mr Christian Estrosi, the conservative former mayor of Nice, who has alleged that the authorities ignored demands to boost the presence of security forces in his city on the eve of last month's terrorist attack.  Extra troops have also been deployed in holiday resorts, to protect France's valuable tourism industry.

But this week's surprise decision to break with 700 years of tradition by cancelling the opening of Europe's biggest flea market in the French city of Lille due to fears of terrorism has only exacerbated the popular perception that the authorities are failing to contain violence: latest opinion polls indicate that two-thirds of voters have lost faith in their government's ability to prevent further terrorist attacks.

And the controversy can only deepen, since former president Nicolas Sarkozy is promising to make counter-terrorism a central plank of his bid to regain his old post at elections scheduled for next year. "The absence of an adequate response from our state only deepens the divisions in our society", warned Mr Sarkozy, who now promises to deliver a fiery speech outlining his own counter-terrorism proposals by the end of this month.

The sour mood is made worse by the fact that, for the first time, both the ruling Socialists and their Republican centre-right opponents are holding US-style primaries, to pick their official candidates for the presidential election.

With his approval rating at barely 17 per cent - the lowest such figure in modern French history - Mr Hollande's chances of securing his Socialist party nomination for a second term in office appear slim. But Mr Valls, the most viable Socialist alternative candidate, is not much more popular.

The Socialists' best chance of retaining the presidency rests with Mr Emmanuel Macron, the 38-year-old Economy Minister and popular former banker. But he is detested by the party's rank-and-file, so the Socialists are set to continue fighting each other for months to come.

The opposition Republicans are not in a much better position. Mr Sarkozy has control of the party, and is determined to win its nomination for the election. But opinion polls indicate that Mr Alain Juppe, a former prime minister, stands a better chance of winning the ballots.

Meanwhile, all of France's politicians know that Ms Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, remains the most popular presidential candidate of all, and the one to beat next year. Either way, the result is an especially bitter political debate between an unprecedented high number of candidates.

The government hopes to shift the national mood by launching a "feel-good" publicity campaign to coincide with the so-called "rentree", as the return to work after the end of August is traditionally known.

"We will be highlighting our economic achievements, our boost in employment and our growing investment in innovation," said government spokesman Stephane le Foll.

But few are willing to bet on the success of such a campaign. And meanwhile, even the way some Frenchmen and women take their holidays is now controversial: Plans by a group of French Muslims to rent a beach where women will be covered head to toe in "burkini" swimwear are raising hackles.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2016, with the headline 'Politics heats up French summer'. Print Edition | Subscribe