PARIS — In the three months since the Nov. 13 Paris terrorist attacks, President François Hollande’s socialist government has faced significant external pressures from an increasingly popular French right. But Hollande’s response to those challenges has earned him unexpected new enemies — including some within the ranks of his own party.
In response to the November attacks, which left 130 dead and many more injured across the city, and the January 2015 attacks on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo — which were perpetrated by Islamist militants who were French or European citizens — Hollande and his prime minister, Manuel Valls, have proposed legislation that has outraged many French leftists. The law, known in France as the “déchéance de la nationalité,” would strip the French nationality of dual citizens convicted of terrorist activity. Last week, France’s National Assembly voted 317 to 199 in favor of a constitutional amendment that would permit the legislation, which has passed to the Senate.
“The first response to terrorists is unity of the citizenry,” said Patrick Weil, a leading authority on the history of immigration. “But this has divided the country and has divided the left. The principle of equality before the law is a pillar of French nationality. Suddenly it’s under attack.”
Many leftists consider the “déchéance” a betrayal, by a socialist president, of the French Republican values at the heart of the socialist party’s political program. According to the party’s own materials, these values include the traditional triumvirate of “liberty, equality, fraternity” that derive from the French Revolution, but also the more contemporary additions of “justice” and “citizenship.” Le Monde estimates that there are 3.3 million dual citizens in France today, and critics maintain that the new measure would make an unlawful distinction among citizens who should otherwise remain equal in the eyes of the state.
Members of Hollande’s party — and including some in his cabinet — have spoken out. Last month, Christiane Taubira, Hollande’s French Guiana-born justice minister, resigned over the new nationality law, which she critiqued in a book she released last week entitled “Murmures à la jeunesse.” Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, another prominent socialist, also has condemned the law.
Yet even before the eruption of the nationality law issue, dissatisfaction on the left with Hollande’s leadership ran deep — largely over French unemployment figures, a stagnant national economy and Eurozone politics. By the end of 2015, the nation’s unemployment rate jumped to 10.6 percent, just shy of the national record of 10.7 percent in 1997. With 3.6 million French looking for work, Hollande’s 2012 campaign promise to “redress, repair and reunite” a France he called “broken and burnt” rings hollow and unfulfilled.
In response, a group of prominent French leftist intellectuals — including best-selling economist Thomas Piketty, historian Pierre Rosanvallon and the activist Daniel Cohn-Bondit, a public face of the 1968 student revolts — have called for a “grande primaire de la gauche” at the end of 2016. In theory, this “grand leftist primary” would serve as a counterpoint to the primary that the French right will hold this fall, in advance of the 2017 election. In an open letter last month, the leftist group condemned what it called the government’s excessive dependence on “destructive models” and its failure to confront “social inequalities, discrimination, the degradation of the environment and the effacement of democracy.”
Some doubt the practical effect of such a primary. Gerard Grunberg, a historian of French socialism, dismissed the proposal as “an idea from the intellectuals.”
“They do not have the infrastructure, they are divided, and they have too many leaders who want to be the candidate,” he said.
For the primary’s proponents, however, it represents a critical step in salvaging the French left’s political future. “It would be a huge mistake for the Left not to have a big public debate, and to let the right parties have a debate on their own,” said Piketty, whose blockbuster 2013 book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” sold more than 1.5 million copies. “The record of the president is not terribly good, and there is a need for justification, a public explanation.”
In January 2015, Piketty, once close to the socialist establishment, turned down France’s highest honor, the Légion d’honneur, on grounds that the government “would do better to concentrate on reviving [economic] growth in France and Europe.” That is the ultimate focus of the primary that he and his colleagues have demanded, but they also have taken a stand against the new nationality law. “The ‘déchéance de nationalité’ project is unjustifiable,” their manifesto reads, “and the instrumentalization of the Constitution for political ends constitutes a major democratic rupture.”
Last Thursday, in a seeming attempt to unify his divided political allies, Hollande announced a reshuffling of his cabinet. For the first time since 2014, the “remaniment” welcomed several green party — Europe Écologie-Les Verts (EELV) — politicians into the highest echelons of the French government, including Emmanuelle Cosse, the green party’s leader, to the post of housing minister. The move appears to have backfired.
In a statement, the EELV announced that it strongly disapproves of the fact that several of its own are participating in a government “unfortunately incompatible with environmental policy, social justice, solidarity and even the construction of a peaceful society.” Adding fuel to fire, Jean-Luc Mélénchon, a far-left politician, declared his presidential candidacy Wednesday.
Leading up to 2017, the nationality law, the proposal for a grand primary and now the cabinet reshuffling have presented a public image of confusion by the left.
In the words of Bruno Cautrès, a prominent analyst of French politics at Science Po in Paris: “The unity of the left is broken, and it doesn’t know where to go.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a proposed new law would strip the French nationality of dual citizens accused of terrorist activity. The law would apply to those convicted of such activity. This version has been corrected.