The Festering Fifth Republic

Overnight during the weekend of 25 and 26 October in France, a demonstrator, 21-year-old student Remi Fraisse, was killed by a grenade launched by a policeman. Fraisse was part of a group demonstrating against the erection of a barrage (Sivens) across the River Tescou in the Department of Tarn, east of Toulouse.

On the Saturday, a large demonstration had occurred at the site, with an estimated 5000 to 7000 opponents, including some senior political figures of the Greens and Left. Those present could bask in the splendor of a 13-hectare clearing – previously a treed ‘humid zone’, now a 1.5 kilometers by 500 meters moonscape.

The forces of order had been making perennial excursions there since early September, perennially aggressive and violent, perennially dismantling protestor encampments. The gendarmerie have been boosted by the sometime presence of around 60 armed hunter/farmers who oppose the ‘bobos’ and support the barrage’s construction. On the particular deadly weekend, there was nothing for the gendarmerie, who arrived in force, to protect as all machinery had been recently removed from the site, and the local prefect had promised the organizers of the demonstration that no police would be sent in on the weekend.

On the Friday evening, a portable ‘Algeco’ and a generator, all that remained on the site, had been burned (who by?), and this event was used as the reason for the authorities’ breaking of their accord.

A witness estimated that some 400 grenades had been launched by the ‘forces of order’ during the night. One article describes a hillside behind the site of the fatality half burnt to ashes as a result of the grenades launchings.

The resident opponents have been persistent, dogged but generally peaceful. A militant group (the ‘Black Blocs’), turn up irregularly. The circumstances of the clash remain cloudy, but witnesses recount that the well-clad gendarmerie aggressively attacked the resident opponents, first with tear gas then with ‘offensive’ grenades, and Fraisse was hit. The gendarmerie then attacked those attempting to drag Fraisse away. The gendarmerie representatives immediately dissembled about what had transpired.

The lawyer acting for Fraisse’s family has claimed “We have here an unprecedented state scandal. Several warnings were given [including by former Minister Cécile Duflot who had visited the site just previously], they were not heeded.”

Police weaponry

The various police forces have been using two kinds of grenades – tear gas grenades (labeled GLI) and ‘offensive’ grenades (labeled OF F1). An offensive (sic) grenade killed Fraisse, but both kinds contain explosives. A person named Pascal Vaillant was permanently maimed with a crushed foot by a tear gas grenade in January 2009. He had been at a demonstration earlier, his first ever, a massive affair raised against President Sarkozy’s attacks on employment and retirement rights. In going to the shops later, he found himself on the edge of a battle, and was thus wounded. Now on a pension, the courts have denied him recognition and justice for his injury.

The French gendarmerie also employ (since 1995) a flashball trajectory – also used against Sivens opponents. A pro-weaponry site called describes it thus:

“Flash-Ball is not something from those paintball weekends. It’s one of the newest less-lethal firearms to emerge. This one, from France, is used primarily for behavior modification — to neutralize combative individuals or to disperse riot crowds. Belligerent or combative behavior is quickly modified by the device, which fires 28-gram, soft rubber balls with the stopping power (200 joules at 2.5 meters) equivalent to that of a .38 Special. Company literature claims the punch it delivers equals a Mike Tyson knock-out punch from up to 10 meters. Yet the soft rubber projectile is designed not to penetrate the skin of a normally clothed person. The Flash-Ball was developed by French arms manufacturer Verney-Carron and is available in two versions …”

Tell that to those who have lost eyes to this ‘less-lethal firearm’ at demonstrations, such as Pierre (Nantes, November 2007) Joachim (Montreuil, July 2009), and a young fireman (December 2013). A man died in Marseilles in December 2010. A Nantes medical team in 2009 had a less enthusiastic inference on the device:

“Even if the penetrating power of the less-lethal weapons seems to be limited … Our report emphasises the real potential of the less-lethal weapons (i.e. the Flash Ball®) for causing casualties. They are not to be fired at the head and if the globe is hit, it is rarely salvageable. Strict compliance with clear guidelines is therefore essential when using them.”

Manifestly these flashballs are fired at the head, deliberately, ‘strict compliance’ ignored, with predictable results.

There had been strict rules for the use of the gendarmerie and the character of its weaponry in civil disturbances. These were changed under the Sarkozy presidency, beginning 2009 and concluding in decrees of June 2011 in which the ‘forces of order’ were attached to the Interior Ministry. More, the gendarmerie command was itself added to lines of civilian officials authorized to instigate deployment of the forces. Sarkozy’s close confidant Claude Guéant was then Minister of the Interior. (The same Guéant, then Director General of the police force, had launched the use of flashball in 1995.) Sarkozy was himself Minister of the Interior between May 2002 and March 2004, and again between June 2005 and March 2007, on which latter platform he applied repressive policies engineered to gain further right-wing support for his Presidential candidacy.

The local prefect (apparently installed by Prime Minister Valls with the Sivens demonstration in mind) was urging firmness on the part of the gendarmerie. On the night of the grenade barrage and death, contrary to extant regulations, there was no senior commander on site. The current Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, has subsequently halted the use of OF F1 grenades but has retained the use of GLI grenades.

Development, ecology and process in the Tarn

The scale of the proposed barrage is almost 13 meters high and 315 meters long, to support a 2 kilometer long reservoir. Opponents claims that only 30 farmers (oriented especially to corn, animal feed) would be the beneficiaries.

The forces arraigned in support of the barrage are formidable. There is the local political establishment which initiated the development, embodied in Tarn’s General Council and its president (and Parti Socialiste Senator) Thierry Carcenac. The area (dominated by Toulouse) had become a Parti Socialiste fiefdom, complemented by the Parti Radical de la Gauche. The dominant regional newspaper, La Dépêche du Midi, is a family concern of the PRG Senator Jean-Michel Baylet (a cumulard, see below).

Prime Minister Valls is aggressively supportive. Successive Hollande Ministries have rendered their formal commitment to ecological principles of marginal relevance in practice. Successive pro-environment Ecology Ministers Nicole Bricq and Delphine Batho have been succeeded by the subservient Philippe Martin and (since April) the hapless Ségolène Royal.

Valls is in sympathy with the dominant agricultural representative body FNSEA and its corporate-oriented President Xavier Beulin. Beulin has damned some of the opposition as ‘green jihadists’, claiming that democracy is at stake in this battle and accusing the government of lacking guts.

Valls is also mindful of the ‘demonstration effect’ of a victory for the opponents over the Sivens barrage development. Foremost is the impasse over the proposed new airport at Notre Dame de Landes near Nantes. The airport has been a favored proposal of Jean-Marc Ayrault, previous Prime Minister and local political heavyweight. The plan is in limbo, foremost because of the opposition, but complemented by the ineptness of the plan.

Intended as a vehicle to facilitate regional expansion, given the saturation of the Nantes airport it has been discovered belatedly (because of the secrecy associated with the development) that the proposed airport is smaller (if fancier) than the one it is meant to complement. More, the contract accorded to the builder Vinci, a juicy public private partnership of €450 million, has never been made public. In a sector colloquially known as ‘concreters’ (bétonneurs), Vinci is the French giant unrepentantly involved in a joint contract for the motorway between Moscow and St Petersburg that cuts through the protected Khimki forest – a development that has generated ‘green’ opposition, the latter and their supporters experiencing brutal reprisal.

Democracy at stake? Guilhem Siereys, a councilor for the Midi-Pyrénées region that includes Tarn, has noted that several official inquiries into the ecological impact of the project were ignored by the Tarn proponents. It has been this flouting of procedures that led to dissidents setting up camp at the worksite, now in place for several years.

At the centre of the barrage development is the semi-public Compagnie d’aménagement des coteaux de Gascogne (CACG). It is presided over by key councillors of the Regions and Departments of the South-West, and includes representatives of the local chambers of agriculture. It is the same people who have conceived of the project, have been responsible for examination as to its feasibility, have voted for it and have overseen its implementation. The prospect of EU funds subsidizing the development has whetted the appetites of these locals.

A reflection of the downside of this modus operandi is a predecessor to Sivens, that of the Fourogue dam in the same Department of Tarn. The needed scale and the potential farm income arising from the irrigation facility were both over-estimated. The Fourogue dam became operational in 2008, in the face of long opposition and official orders directed to halting the project. Since, the additional farm income has been paltry, the operational costs are significant, and the project operates at a deficit that accumulates to the account of the CACG itself, the project having subsequently been ruled as contrary to the public interest.

In early September 2014, Royal ordered an independent audit of the Sivens project, which reported in late October. It recommended that the project should go ahead, given that it was already in train, but that both the scale and estimated farmer benefits were overblown. The report recommended a reduction in scale to 60% of that currently planned. The project was first conceived in the late 1990s and the irrigation needs estimated in 2001, with no later revision. Since then, a reduction in the number of farmers and modification of techniques has not been taken into account. A re-run of the Fourogue experience. The environmental impact be damned.

The Sivens barrage, the Notre Dames des Landes airport, the 1000 cow factory, are representative of large-scale ‘developmental’ projects with inbuilt flaws, not least adverse ecological implications. Improper planning processes and secrecy are perennial accompaniments. The green site Reporterre refers to them as the ‘great useless projects’, traversing auto routes, commercial developments, unnecessary ‘very fast train’ lines, sports stadia, etc. Many of them are fostered by local Deputies or Senators, hoping to apply public funds to elevate their political fortunes. Familiar stuff. Vladimir Slonska-Malvaud reports:

“These projects constitute for the localities concerned an ecological disaster, socio-economic and human”, notes the Tunis Charter, adopted at the World Social Forum in March 2013. “They never involve the effective participation of the population in informing the decisions … [but are] embedded in a logic of competition exacerbated between the regions and they entail a forward thrust towards ‘bigger, faster, more costly, more centralizing’.”

Notes Slonska-Malvaud, “there is inevitably one near you”. Thus the Sivens barrage, forged through unaccountable processes, and intended to be imposed by force. For the moment, the death of Fraisse has led to the project being forced into abeyance.

The official response

There was no immediate official response to Fraisse’s death, although leaders would have known the story on Sunday morning. On Monday 27th, Carcenac exclaimed “To die for one’s ideas is one thing, but it’s a stupid and silly thing to do”. On the Tuesday, platitudes from Hollande – his first utterance. Nothing from Ecology Minister Royal.

The vapidity of Ségolène Royal was further exposed in an ancillary incident. A 75-year old woman had been living in her isolated house on the periphery of the development site. Royal accused the demonstrators implicitly of ejecting her and squatting in her house. Rather, the gendarmerie had removed her, claiming her security was at risk, and the bulldozers had carelessly cut off her electricity to boot. The house remains secured by the demonstrators awaiting her return.

Tuesday 28th, Prime Minister Valls addresses the National Assembly. More platitudes, then “before the inquest has been completed, I will never accept any questioning of the police and gendarmerie, which counts numerous wounded in their ranks”. Wednesday morning 29th it is now publicly acknowledged that Fraisse was killed by an offensive grenade. Valls declares that he “has absolutely nothing to hide, nothing to fear”. Valls adds his “support to the gendarmerie and to the police who do a difficult job and suffer violence [in doing so]”. Wednesday evening, the director general of the gendarmerie announces that he will not suspend the person responsible: “I estimate that there was no intentional voluntary mistake (sic)”.

Valls also opined that the project had received the support of those elected to govern. Backing up Valls, Hugues Fourage, spokesperson for the PS Deputies, claimed that if a project had been supported by elected representatives, why should it be stopped because a minority want it so? Claimed Fourage, “This project has cleared all the democratic stages and no minority should be able to impose on the majority such and such a position by violent means.” The Opposition UMP Deputies chimed in in support – it’s all the fault of extreme left-wing eco-fanatics, who go from demo to demo and disrupt, with violent tactics, legitimate developmental projects.

Any small militant factions are a side issue, symptomatic rather than causal. And one can’t rule out the use of agents provocateurs as there is more venality in ruling circles than one would like to believe. The issue is the lack of legitimacy because ‘all the democratic stages’ have been bypassed.

The structural rot

Valls was Interior Minister from May 2012 to March 2014, when he became Prime Minister. As with Sarkozy, the Interior Ministry is not good training for top leadership (albeit François Mitterand, Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin held the post for short periods). The former breeds nastiness, vindictiveness, a mentality of discrimination and exclusion. Sarkozy and Valls, especially Valls, have these qualities in spades. The Presidency and Prime Ministership demand the contrary.

But the problem runs deeper. The Fifth Republic is past its use-by date.

The French historian Michel Winock chronicles the last days of the Fourth Republic in his 1978 book La République se meurt (The Republic is dying). Alas, like most of Winock’s books, it remains untranslated. Winock remembers the surprising indifference with which the public met the death of Guy Mollet in October 1975. Mollet had been President of the Council of Ministers, aka Prime Minister, from February 1956 to June 1957. Mollet and his Party, myopic over inevitable imperial decline, presided over the Suez fiasco and the brutal repression in Algeria in response to the escalating violent tactics of the National Liberation Front.

Winock harks back to that period, as an angry teenager. Regarding Mollet:

“… after a ten year career at the head of the SFIO [French Section of the Workers’ International, forerunner of the Parti Socialiste], in undertaking another at the head of government … He had become for many, including me, a paragon of deceitfulness and treachery. It was Tartuffe himself, resuscitated under the Socialist cloak.”

He admits to the exaggeration of youth. However:

“… the lasting disgust that a generation (and perhaps several) sustained for the socialist party had its origins in the years 1956-58, on which hangs the symbolic figure of this dismal and wily apparatchik whose death finally closes an epoch that no longer exists.

The Algerian imbroglio kills of the Fourth Republic; the Fifth Republic under Charles de Gaulle is ushered in in January 1959. Winock claims:

“We had passed from an impotent parliamentary regime to a despotism enlightened and efficient. It was at the same time a regression and an advance.”

The advance has long since ceased. A despotism enlightened and efficient? The despotism tag is now inappropriate, but the inordinate power of the Presidency remains entrenched. Nicholas Sarkozy’s single Prime Minister in his five-year term, François Fillon, was discretely permanently off camera. At present, President François Hollande and Prime Minster Manuel Valls constitute effectively a two-person executive, and Valls is Hollande’s man. Even under the rare periods of ‘cohabitation’, the Prime Minister appointee is ultimately at the President’s discretion.

Efficiency and enlightenment? In the name of efficiency, successive recent ‘reforms’ have occurred that fall foul of enlightened values, but are also questionable in terms of their efficacy. Representative is Sarkozy’s July 2007 révision générale des politiques publiques. The RGPP formally aimed for a state apparatus fiscally disciplined while being ‘customer focused’. The reality is that it was driven by a managerialist mentality that almost guarantees dysfunctionality. Ditto Sarkozy’s 2008 Pôle Emploi, formally streamlining unemployment relief and jobs assistance, but assuming away the extreme scarcity of jobs. His 2010 reforms of the fiscally bleeding retirement system were ham-fisted.

Such developments under Sarkozy were hardly atypical. The RGPP complemented and built on the August 2001 loi organique relative aux lois de finances – an exemplar of the New Public Management creed – that was introduced under President Jacques Chirac and Parti Socialiste Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. And Pôle Emploi replicates institutional devices already implemented in other countries. These developments are reflections of the neoliberal era, pervasive in coverage, which era has carried with it an ideologically-charged redefinition of ‘efficiency’.

In this context, the Presidential prerogative has facilitated the ready inroads of the neoliberal agenda. So much for the ‘French model’. It is remarkable that Anglo economic/financial periodicals, the wretched UK Economist as exemplar, carry on as if France has pulled up the drawbridge against their preferred nostrums for national salvation.

In general, Sarkozy’s quinquennat was clouded by hyperactivity and pragmatism – and pervasive corruption (known then, but the extent discovered belatedly). An agenda of Constitutional changes under his initiative in 2008 had a progressive impulse. But the underlying motif was a politics and program unenlightened and inegalitarian. He cut education dramatically; he cut public health, public services in general. A lot of his cuts were under the radar (domestic abuse services, special needs education services), and they remain so.

Hollande came to office with this backdrop. Although Hollande’s own victory was close (51.6% in the second tour), the Socialists were achieving major victories at all levels – the municipalities, the regions, the Assembly and (very rare) the Senate. All systems go for a progressive future?

His opening salvos, if minor, seemed to indicate a qualitative change. Whereas Sarkozy had dramatically increased his own salary, Hollande cut the allowances of both himself and his ministers – a symbolic move but seemingly positive for future developments.

The period under Hollande’s first Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, was generally innocuous. The courageous same-sex marriage law of May 2013 was a highlight. Also significant was Hollande’s efforts to implement his Party’s program of abolishing the right of elected representatives to hold simultaneously multiple elected offices or directorships of public institutions (le cumul des mandats). These multiple offices help cement what are local and regional fiefdoms that exist in a symbiotic relationship (oiling the Party machines) with the powerful Presidency.

The daily Le Figaro reported in January 2014 (with the law’s imminent passage in the Assembly) that three-quarters of (over 900) parliamentarians held multiple mandates. The magazine L’Express reported in September 2013 that the PS Senator and mayor of Dunkerque, Michel Delebarre, topped the list with 3 elected positions and 23 administrative appointments. The most spectacular representative of this phenomenon is Serge Dassault, UMP Senator, multi-billionaire industrialist and industrial-scale tax evader who effectively bought with bribery his own ‘rotten borough’, the town of Corbeil-Essonnes.

Internal dissent occurred over the reform. Some PS Senators, members of an unrepresentative and conservative body in need of reform, dug in their heels, threatening a Constitutional challenge. Implementation has been deferred and planned for 2017.

But on the economy, Hollande has been weak from the start. During the presidential campaign Hollande had proposed a super tax of 75% on incomes over €1 million, on which the Anglo media had a field day. The proposal was then an attempt to head off the left-wing breakaway Jean-Luc Mélenchon); its subsequent immersion in the technical problems of implementation facilitated its marginalization. More serious and fundamental is Hollande’s capitulation, in conjunction with his Finance Ministry (full of revolving door hopefuls), to the finance sector’s ongoing free-wheeling prerogatives in spite of that sector’s central role in the European version of the GFC.

The plummeting popularity of Hollande is a natural response to his increasingly strangulated agenda. The turning point was the municipal elections in April 2014 when the previous PS dominance at this level was obliterated. In response to this negative public judgement, Hollande exercised his royal prerogative by appointing his right-wing Interior Minister Valls as Prime Minister. Thus would Hollande/Valls proceeed to implement an agenda that the electorate had just rejected. With a further negative impact on his popularity, historically unprecedented.

With this dogged tunnel vision, Holland/Valls have ignored and threatened Deputy/Senator dissenters (frondeurs) from their own Party. The eruption of dissent within the Ministry itself has resulted not in reconsideration but in the further refashioning of the Ministry in August 2014 and a further wilful hardening of line. The government is now a single-minded Hollande/Valls diumvirate.

As with Obama, one’s optimism after the 2012 election was hopelessly naive. As we used to say in the 1960s, what a Captain Bringdown!

The Hollande/Valls economic agenda is formally centred on the attempt to reduce the budgetary deficit (currently at 4.5%), under pressure from Brussels, to the Maastricht-designated 3% of GDP. This ‘attempt’ flounders for multiple reasons. Not least, one, Hollande/Valls have no agenda for stimulating economic and jobs growth and its attendant revenue generation (save for some pump priming dominated by the ‘useless projects’). Their de facto supply side mentality, elevated with the advice of banker/adviser and now Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, is risible. Two, massive tax cuts offered to the rapacious employer lobby, to supposedly facilitate jobs growth, merely enhances the budgetary deficit impasse. Three, there is no strategy to confront rampant tax evasion of both French elites and domiciled corporations.

More broadly, Hollande/Valls remain quiescent regarding the significant dysfunctionality of the European Union itself, centred on the inbuilt asymmetric deflationary orientation of the European Central Bank and the Maastricht rules. Those rules at best pre-supposed ~ 3% annual economic growth, a la the post-WWII boom, a phenomenon likely never to be repeated. Add Brussels’ systematic failure to confront the disempowerment of governmental institutions wrought by the gigantic tax evasion racket (and just having rewarded the Luxembourgian tax evasion mastermind Jean-Claude Juncker with the EU Presidency).

Guy Carcassonne and Olivier Duhamel have up-dated Jean-Jacques Chevallier’s Histoire de la Ve République to mid 2012 when Hollande wins office. They conclude their account with the following:

“Never will the Left have had so much power. But constrained by the European commitments, the mistrust of the markets, the level of public indebtedness, the competitive pressures of globalization, at the same time never will [those with formal power] have had so little power.”

The constraints are real, but Hollande has subserviently accommodated external pressures, imagined as well as real. Like most of Europe, as a seeming closet Atlanticist he has also accommodated US (and NATO) imperatives. He has accommodated Western-allied reactionary regimes (including Israel) across the Middle East. He has blithely continued with the profound impasse in francophone Africa (and its neo-colonialist anchor), made worse by the escalation of jihadism facilitated by Sarkozy’s folly in Libya.

Hollande has thus employed the inordinate power of the presidency, cemented under the Fifth Republic, to pursue an unpopular agenda resolutely, in the face of growing dissent and of manifest failure to achieve its purported objectives.

Moreover, the death at Tarn and the contemptible reaction to that death, highlight that the government has lost its humanity as well, generalizing a mentality that was applied to designated ‘outsiders’ when Valls was Interior Minister.

There is a latent curiosity here. Hollande remains essentially an unknown quantity. Long known as a fence sitter in his role as PS Secretary, resolutely avoiding having opinions, he appears to have acquired ‘pole position’ in the PS Primary (helped by the self-disqualification of Dominique Strauss-Kahn) as the lowest common denominator.

But as President, with the presidential powers of the Fifth Republic, he will be remembered, rightly, as a disaster. The ‘Mr Normal’ attribution, originally interpreted favourably as quaint, has exposed an empty vessel who has read the wind, and is sailing himself, his government and his country onto the rocks.

And in doing so, as with Mollet’s SFIO, he is destroying for the indefinite future, the political legitimacy of the Socialist Party – and this at the time when the UMP (with the discredited Sarkozy renewed at its head) is comprehensively compromised.

Evan Jones is a retired political economist from the University of Sydney. He can be reached


Evan Jones is a retired political economist from the University of Sydney. He can be reached