The French political landscape is more polarised than ever and with growth still anaemic, the state of the economy is adding to the sense of malaise. How François Hollande, France’s most unpopular president in modern history, tackles the challenges facing his country in the year ahead will determine his chances of securing a second term in 2017.
The rate of unemployment in the Eurozone’s number-two economy is stubbornly high at roughly double that of neighbouring Germany. Matters have got worse in the course of 2015. The number of long-term unemployed is particularly alarming – up more than 15 per cent year-on-year. President Hollande had pledged not to run for office again unless he managed to reverse this trend; on that promise, his candidacy for the 2017 election should look shaky indeed.
A decade has passed since the infamous riots in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, which spread to other so-called quartiers sensibles – sensitive areas – across the country. Those events laid bare the decay in the banlieues that encircle France’s major cities. Despite billions of euros in government spending over the past 10 years there is little evidence of improvement and in some areas rates of crime and unemployment are still far above the national average. Following the January terror attacks the prime minister, Manuel Valls, said that “ghettoisation” in the banlieues may have been a factor in the attackers’ radicalisation.
Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) is still riding high in the polls. The far right has long blamed the country’s economic woes on minorities and now the FN also trumpets the dangers of “runaway immigration” and “creeping Islamisation”, capitalising on the January attacks. President Hollande’s ability to galvanise the forces of unity in their aftermath now seems a distant memory.
The winner of Scotland’s parliamentary elections is not in doubt; the Scottish National Party (SNP) will retain power by a landslide. The big question is whether this will lead to another referendum on Scotland’s independence. The rest of the UK will be watching with interest.
They will be far less interested in the Welsh assembly elections though. It has fewer devolved powers and the nationalists are not a force. But this will be a test for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party – if it loses its majority, questions will be asked about his leadership.
The candidates to become London’s mayor appear polar opposites. Sadiq Khan is the Muslim son of a bus driver; Zac Goldsmith the Eton-educated son of a billionaire. But both have the same man-of-the-people appeal as London’s two previous mayors, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson. And like those, whoever wins will probably soon be known by their first name alone.
Being the leader of the Scottish Conservatives used to be a rather lonely job. Since 1997 the party has had at the very most just one MP at Westminster. But in Ruth Davidson, the Scottish party’s current leader, it now has one of Scotland’s most popular politicians. Gay, socially liberal and possessed of an actual personality, Davidson is liked across the political spectrum and has the rare gift – for a politician – of appearing normal.
Scotland holds elections for its own parliament in May, which the Scottish National Party (SNP) will win handsomely. But with Scottish Labour struggling to find its feet after being wiped out in last year’s UK general election, Davidson has a chance to re-establish her party north of the border as the main opposition to the SNP and as the most high-profile Scottish defender of the Union.
Slovakia is enjoying something of a renaissance with its EU presidency due to start in 2016 and a new leader in millionaire philanthropist Andrej Kiska, who unexpectedly stormed to power in 2014. The country’s economic boom owes much to the capital Bratislava’s evolution as a magnet for start-ups and the tech sector. Under new mayor Ivo Nesrovnal, expect more co-operation with Vienna – just 65km away – this year as Slovakia’s economy strengthens and integrates further with the rest of Europe.