Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hollande's audacity surprises

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Ever since French President Franßois Hollande was elected last May, things have not gone right for him.

He promised to kick-start growth and create jobs, yet the economy has stalled, factories keep closing and unemployment is more than 10 per cent. The highest court has ruled his scheme to impose a 75 per cent top income-tax rate on millionaires unconstitutional. As many as one million protesters have challenged his plans to legalize gay adoption and marriage. As his credibility has drooped, so have his poll numbers, hitting record lows.

In recent days, however, Hollande has silenced his critics by revealing an unexpected streak of audacity.

First came the decision on Jan. 11 to order French air strikes on an Islamist incursion from northern Mali into government-held territory. With no warning, Hollande sent fighter jets based in France and nearby Chad, as well as attack helicopters, to strike a rebel column advancing towards Bamako, the capital.

After days of air strikes, in which one French helicopter pilot was killed, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French defence minister, said the Islamist groups, which have ties to al-Qaida, had been partially pushed back.

Last week Hollande announced he was increasing to 2,500 the number of French troops in Mali.

The French have long worried the Sahel is becoming "Afrighanistan," a breeding ground for terrorists, made deadlier by modern weapons seized in Libya after the war there. France drafted a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing a regional African force to retake rebel-held territory, which was unanimously passed last October. There are eight French hostages in the region, and groups in Mali have named France as a terrorist target.

Hollande, however, also has made clear France will not play its old role of regional gendarme, stepping in to prop up African rulers. He promised Mali logistical support, but no boots on the ground.

Last week's operation, motivated by the urgent fear that Bamako itself might fall to the jihadists, turns that vow on its head, for the first time testing his mettle as a war leader in a high-stakes operation.

For the moment, he enjoys both international support and cross-party backing at home: 63 per cent of respondents told one poll they approved. It lends authority to a politician with no foreign-policy experience and a reputation for prevarication.

It is bold, however, precisely because it is perilous. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that the intervention would be for a matter of "weeks," but Hollande's ambitions include "restoring Mali's territorial integrity" and "stopping terrorist aggression." In theory, the job should swiftly pass to African forces, but this is likely to be a long, drawn-out process for the French.

As if one African military operation were not bold enough, on Jan. 11 Hollande ordered a commando raid to rescue a French intelligence agent held hostage in Somalia since 2009. A night operation, involving five helicopters and 50 commandos from a warship off the coast ended in disaster: Two commandos died, and the hostage-takers say that they have killed the agent.

The two interventions have little in common except a political willingness to take risks. France has raised its level of terror alert.

Even if the Mali operation works, it may not lift Hollande's poll ratings. Foreign policy rarely boosts domestic standing, as his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, found with the war in Libya. More important is what happens to jobs and the economy. On that front, however, Hollande has also scored a recent success, albeit a modest one.

On Jan. 11, after three months of talks at the government's request, unions and bosses reached a surprise agreement that will ease some of the country's labour-market rigidities.

The deal fell far short of the "historic compromise" Hollande had promised. Plenty of problems, such as the tangle of regulations that govern compulsory union consultation in the workplace or the 35-hour working week, were not even up for negotiation.

Some bits of the deal, such as a requirement for firms to provide health coverage for employees, or higher taxes on very short-term work contracts, will actually add new costs for employers.

Nonetheless the deal was "better than expected," says Pierre Cahuc, a labour-market economist who was skeptical about its prospects. For the first time, employers will be able to reduce hours and wages for as long as two years in a downturn, in exchange for guaranteeing jobs, and such agreements, which will require majority union support, will prevail over any sector-wide rules. The deal also reduces from five years to two years the deadline for an employee to contest a layoff in a labour court.

Equally important is the evidence that it is possible in France to reach agreement on reforms through negotiation, without prompting mass protests.

The deal was not signed by two unions, including the biggest one, the communist-backed Confédération Générale du Travail, which considers it too employer-friendly. This could cause trouble when it is written into law, but no one has yet called for street protests.

Whether the new agreement will have much immediate effect, however, is another matter.

In short, Hollande may for the first time look like a decisive leader who has started to make difficult choices. Nonetheless, it promises to be a hard year ahead, at home and, now, abroad.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 21, 2013 A11

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