Secret report warns France on verge of revolt on tax issue
Usually careful corps of prefects warns of ‘a possible social explosion’
French teachers of elementary schools protest as part of a nationwide day of strike to demonstrate against the government’s education reform, in Paris. Photograph: Benoit Tessier/Reuters
A secret document leaked to Le Figaro newspaper explains why President François Hollande caves in to the slightest sign of street protest.
“Throughout [French] territory . . . society is in the grip of tension, exasperation and anger,” says the ministry of the interior’s monthly summary of reports from 101 prefects, dated October 25th.
The corps of prefects was established by Napoleon in 1800 to be the central government’s eyes and ears in the provinces. The prefects are graduates of the elite École Nationale d’Administration and are considered neutral public servants.
The monthly reports are usually couched in careful, and sanitised language, which makes the blatant warning to the interior minister and president all the more alarming. “The legitimacy of tax” is now widely questioned, it notes. “This mix of latent discontent and resignation erupts through sudden bouts of anger, almost spontaneous, and not within structured social movements.”
The publication of excerpts of the report yesterday coincides with the rise of at least a dozen protest movements, many with animal names including chicks, turkeys, bees, sheep, dodos and storks. There are also red, green and orange bonnets, and “the sacrificed”, who oppose a scheduled VAT increase next January 1st.
“Taxation has become the principal engine of opposition to the government,” the report says. It speaks of the “painful” climate in France, of “a feeling of deep despondency that prevents people hoping for a better future”. This is fertile ground for “a possible social explosion,” the prefects warn, quoting the slogan of an artisans and building workers union: “Watch out; it’s going to blow.”
Until now, attention focused on protests in Brittany against the “ecotax” on freight lorries. The prefects asked the government to dismantle hi-tech gateways built to collect the tax “before they are all destroyed”. Protesters continued to vandalise the gates even after the government “suspended” the tax at the end of October, and Breton trade unions are organising another day of protest on November 23rd.
“The prefects note that mobilisation extends to territories or sectors which were quiet until now,” the report says, listing nine troubled departments far from Brittany.
Politicians are adding to the dire warnings. “France is on the verge of insurrection,” the centre right leader François Bayrou said repeatedly on breakfast radio. “We’re going from anger towards violence,” said the former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.
“Are we really in 1789?” the historian and biographer of Louis XVI, Jean-Christian Petitfils, asked in an opinion piece in Le Figaro. Petitfils listed parallels between the eve of the French revolution and the present: a huge foreign debt; chronic budget deficit; crushing, unequally shared taxes; an impotent and unpopular government; rivalry among ministers; high unemployment and outbreaks of violence. Petitfils compared François Hollande with Louis XVI: “two hesitant optimists… disconnected from reality…”
Petitfils believes revolt is more likely revolution, but that “serious convulsions… even a painful social explosion, cannot be excluded.”
Rumblings against Hollande continue. “Monsieur le président, 15 angry French people call you to account,” was the front page banner headline of yesterday’s Aujourdh’hui en France tabloid. An opinion poll published by the Huffington Post showed Hollande’s popularity has fallen another six points, to 15 per cent.
The statistics institute INSEE reported that French GDP shrank 0.1 per cent in the third quarter, while business investment was down 0.6 per cent.
A study commissioned by the Élysée from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development pointed out the fundamental weaknesses of the French economy: falling levels of training and education; excessive taxation; lost productivity and a minimum wage that is 80 per cent higher than the OECD average.