Bastille Day festivities fall flat as Hollande itemises work done
President promises to fight French pessimism
French president François Hollande reviews the troops while descending from the Champs-Élysées at the start of the traditional Bastille Day military parade in Paris yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Christian Hartmann
France has known more auspicious Bastille Days.
The president was booed by opponents of same-sex marriage as he descended the Champs-Élysées. The annual projection of military might was whittled down to save money: 265 vehicles, 35 per cent fewer than last year; a 12 per cent reduction in the 35 helicopters and 58 aircraft trailing blue, white and red smoke.
François Mitterrand established the tradition of the Bastille Day television interview 32 years ago, and it’s considered the political rendez-vous of the year between the president and the French people.
François Hollande promised to break the tradition but, with his approval rating stuck at 30 per cent, it was important for him to embrace that symbol of power by submitting to questions on the lawn of the Élysée Palace.
Hollande’s predecessors threw a Bastille Day garden party for thousands – another tradition he’s curtailed. It’s the military’s day as much as the president’s, and the top brass aren’t happy. As Hollande noted in his interview, 54,000 military positions have already been cut. A recent defence white paper foresees 24,000 more military job losses by 2019.
The mood was further darkened by the train wreck that killed six people late Friday. The derailment of the Paris-Limoges train was caused by mechanical failure, Hollande said. He wasn’t sure if it was due to poor maintenance or ageing equipment, but vowed that henceforward, France will place priority on maintaining “classic” train lines, with less emphasis on the prestigious, high-speed TGV.
Hollande is coming under fire from his own camp. In his book French Emergencies, Jacques Attali, who was a top adviser to Mitterrand, writes that “France does not know how to reform. François Hollande’s programme lacked ambition from the beginning.”
In its weekend edition, Le Monde published a severe, front-page editorial about the “message breakdown” of the presidency, saying Hollande had the “obligation” to “at last outline a direction, carry a vision, speak to France”. By those criteria, the Bastille Day interview failed.
Confidence is what the French lack, Hollande said, promising to fight French pessimism: “We’ve been the most pessimistic country in Europe, even in the world, for years. There are countries at war who are more optimistic than we are. There’s an explanation: France is not any old country. France is a great country, which has an international role. So when there’s a crisis, we suffer, because we can’t accept decline and losing our rank.”
France continues to maintain 3,200 soldiers in Mali, where the first round of presidential elections is scheduled for July 28th. Hollande said France must be proud of the “victory over terrorism” achieved there. “I have been saluted in Africa, not for what I did, but for what I decided. Those who acted were French soldiers.”
Hollande’s main accomplishment was emphasised by placing Malian troops at the head of the Bastille Day parade. Hollande sat between the Malian interim president Dioncounda Traoré and the UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon on the reviewing stand. They lunched together at the Élysée, and Traoré will pin a medal on Hollande at the Malian embassy this morning.
But regarding the principal concern of the French, the economy, there was less good news. “Politics isn’t magic,” Hollande said. “It’s not sleight of hand. It’s will, strategy, coherence.”
He assumed responsibility for a policy that relies principally on government-subsidised jobs “rather than leave youths hanging out in their neighbourhoods or rural zones in despair”.
Curse of joblessness
Hollande maintained his commitment to “invert the curve of unemployment” by the end of this year.
“Already, I hear people saying, ‘you’ll get there with subsidised jobs’. If we get there, that’s the objective,” he said.
Record-breaking tax hikes have elicited a collective cry of pain from the French electorate, but Hollande refused to rule out further increases in 2014.
The president said he was worried by recent byelection victories by the extreme right-wing National Front. “Their proposals would cut France off, take us out of the euro – it’s extremely serious,” he said.
“When they say they’re going to drive out those who are not like us, those who are not French, and even perhaps certain French people, it’s extremely grave.”