Thousands of leftists protest Hollande’s 1st year

PARIS: Tens of thousands of supporters of leftist parties marched through central Paris on Sunday to express disappointment with President Francois Hollande’s first year in power, criticizing the leader for reneging on his promises to rein in the world of finance and enact economic stimulus.

Hollande, a Socialist, rose to the presidency last May, promising to spare France the austerity measures imposed elsewhere in Europe. And the French government has largely avoided the deep spending cuts, big tax hikes and the wide-ranging reforms of many of its neighbors.

Instead, it has nibbled around the edges of its deficit, cutting 10 billion euros ($13 billion) in spending and increasing taxes, largely on the rich, by 20 billion euros. That’s relatively little for a country with 2 trillion euro economy of which 57 percent is government spending.

Still, France’s economy has continued to deteriorate, with growth stagnating and unemployment rising above 10 percent.

Leftists who took the streets on Sunday — largely from parties to the left of Hollande’s mainstream Socialist Party — rejected the notion that Hollande had spared France a worse fate.

“Salaries are frozen. They continue to reduce hiring in the public sector,” said Brigitte Blang, a 64-year-old teacher from eastern France. “We’re waiting for true leftist policies. There’s money in the coffers!”

Blang was among tens of thousands of people from around the country who gathered around Paris’ iconic Place de la Bastille, named for the prison stormed by French revolutionaries in 1789. They carried signs that said, “Down with austerity,” ”Out with finance, humans first” and “OUSTerity — finance should pay.”

Paris police said 30,000 people showed up, although protest organizers said there were 180,000. After speeches, the crowd marched to another Paris square.

Several protesters acknowledged that they voted for Hollande a year ago — either simply to ensure the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy’s defeat or because they had hope for his leadership.

Hollande’s failure to keep the support of those on the far left protesting in Paris on Sunday while also angering the right —who think his economic reforms and budget cuts haven’t gone far enough — has made him one the least popular presidents in modern French history. In a sign of how he is being squeezed from both sides, police said 15,000 people — largely right-leaning — gathered in another part of Paris on Sunday to protest the recent passage of a law legalizing gay marriage.

Hollande and his ministers have pleaded for more time to allow their policies to take hold.

On the one hand, France’s reluctance to enact major budget cuts may seem prescient to some as many economists and politicians in Europe rethink the austerity programs demanded in exchange for bailouts. The effects of budget cuts and tax increases have been much more detrimental to growth than some expected, and the prolonged recession and high unemployment in many countries has begun to make those policies untenable.

But others note that France hasn’t just shied away from budget cuts, it has also skimped on reforms. While Spain and Italy may be struggling more than France currently, both countries are also laying the groundwork for a strong, durable recovery, many economists say.

France, on the other hand, may be left behind when the rebound comes since it has only partially committed to labor market reforms. Many of its companies are still not competitive on the world stage, its government spending is still too high and Hollande’s administration has only exacerbated the impression that France is a difficult place to do business. One of his ministers has had very public spats with Goodyear, ArcelorMittal and Yahoo in the past year.

Hollande has been trying to turn that reputation around, recently unveiling a raft of tax cuts for entrepreneurs. But that announcement is a good example of the bind he finds himself in: Those very tax cuts were held up as a call to arms for Sunday’s protest. And many deplored what they see as a stranglehold on power exercised by big companies and banks.

“Our march … is a protest against the coup d’etat of the world of finance that is happening throughout Europe,” said Jean-Luc Melenchon, the head of a grouping of leftist political parties known as the Left Front.