• French president provokes base with plan to gut labor rules
  • Socialists considering unprecedented primary before 2017 vote

President Francois Hollande arrived in French Polynesia in the midst of a tropical downpour. The wind and rain whipping up off the Pacific Ocean were nothing compared to the political storm brewing 10,000 miles away in Paris.

France’s leader is embarking on the longest overseas trip since he was elected with his Socialist lawmakers up in arms over plans to gut the 35-hour work week, his second major battle with the rank-and-file this year.

Hollande managed to catch the tail of Cyclone Winston on arrival near Fiji at the start of the five-day tour which also takes in Latin America, where he will meet Peruvian President Ollanta Humala Tuesday. It’s become a recurring theme for a president who got drenched during his swearing-in ceremony and saw his plane hit by lightning en route to Berlin on his first day in office.

As the president began his trip Sunday, the head of the Socialist Party called for him to face a primary contest before next year’s presidential election rather than assume that incumbency guarantees him the nomination.

“The problem is that Hollande is attacking a voter base that is already very angry with him for his lack of results,” said Bruno Jeanbart, a pollster at Opinion Way in Paris. “The risk is that it may be too late to convince voters in the center and on the right that he is capable and it may also be too late to benefit economically.”

Union Resistance

The proposed labor law changes would allow businesses to increase working times with minimal compensation and without real support of unions. The bill may also make it easier for companies to shed jobs, while limiting severance pay. While business lobbies have welcomed the changes, workers’ representatives are protesting.

“It’s unacceptable,” Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the Force Ouvrier union, said on Europe 1 radio. “I can’t imagine a single union swallowing this text as a whole.” Laurent Berger, head of the more accommodating CFDT union, called the plan “very unbalanced,” while Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, secretary general of the Socialist Party, said the proposed package “must evolve.”

The 61-year-old president has long pegged a re-election bid to his ability to reduce unemployment. Friday again, in a two-hour interview on France Inter radio, he reiterated his pledge: unemployment must drop or he won’t be a candidate for the presidential election that is just over a year away.

Current numbers leave Hollande very wide of the mark. About 600,000 people have joined the jobless rolls since he took office in May 2012. The unemployment rate stands at 10.6 percent, an 18-year high and roughly twice the level of the U.K. and Germany. The European Commission doesn’t currently predict any drop in unemployment this year and a slowing global economy threatens France’s first real economic recovery under Hollande.

“We can’t exclude that, faced with the lack of results on unemployment, Hollande is thinking that his only hope is to unleash a psychological shock for French business so that they will begin hiring,” Jeanbart said.

Presidential Primary

For Hollande the problem is that the proposed changes to labor law come on the heels of a confrontation with his supporters over a constitutional change that would allow the government to strip convicted terrorists of their citizenship.

The president’s approval rating has dropped 8 percentage points this year to 19 percent of the population, according to an Ifop poll for the Journal du Dimanche published this week. The poll shows support from self-described Socialists as dropping 12 points to 53 percent.

The dissatisfaction within his party combined with polling that consistently shows Hollande will be ejected in the first round of the 2017 presidential vote, has generated calls for a primary contest on the left. No sitting French president has ever been challenged by his party before embarking on a re-election bid.

“A primary that would cover the entire left-wing spectrum is starting to look necessary,” Socialist chief Cambadelis said Thursday. “If there were a primary, it would apply to the president. ”

Hollande conceded that the risk of having the National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the presidential run off next year was real, recalling the May 2002 presidential election when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party’s founder, beat the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin. Le Pen faced Jacques Chirac in the run off, forcing left-wing voters to rally to Chirac to shut-out the National Front.

The embattled president admitted he is feeling the heat after the Friday radio call-in show in which left-leaning listeners labeled him a “traitor” and interviewers questioned his plans for the economy. He signed off from the two-hour ordeal with the simple admission: “It’s hard to hear.”

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