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Political Column: Three planes and a website

If the government hoped for an end-of-year respite from the comedy of errors that marked President François Hollande's first full year in office, it was to be disappointed.
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Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault took off for an official visit to China in the first week of December, only to be ordered to fly back early to return the presidential Airbus A330 so that Hollande could head for South Africa to attend Nelson Mandela's memorial.

As Ayrault winged his way to Paris, the plan changed and three small Falcon executive jets were substituted for the Airbus. One for the Socialist Hollande, one for his conservative predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy - that way they would not have to endure each other’s company during the journey - and one for bodyguards and technicians.
Ayrault's frustrations did not end there. A few days later, the conservative Le Figaro daily splashed details of an official report advising the government to lift the ban on the Moslem headscarf in state schools. Under the laws of the secular republic, no signs of religious beliefs, be they Christian crucifixes, the Jewish kippah or the Muslim headscarf, are permitted in state institutions.

The report - calling on its 70th page for "the suppression of discriminatory legal dispositions and school regulations particularly aimed at the veil" - was one of five on the prime minister's website containing recommendations to reinforce the "integration" of immigrant communities. But it took 31 days from the time it was posted in November until Le Figaro noticed it and gave it front-page treatment.

Sarkozy's UMP party of course pounced, with its president, Jean-François Copé, denouncing the proposals as "a total break from our vision of republican assimilation." The report, he said, would "further divide the French and feed all extremisms." Ayrault responded by calling Copé "irresponsible and a liar." He argued that just because his office had published a report did not mean it reflected government policy.

Hollande chipped in, saying the recommendations were "in no way the position of the government." Interior Minister Manuel Valls, widely tipped to be angling to replace Ayrault as prime minister, added that the report contained "dangerous proposals that put in question the nature of France and secularism." Bruno Jeudy, the political commentator of the weekly Journal du Dimanche, said the government's behaviour seemed to be a consequence of "amateurism or ineptitude. Or perhaps cynicism on the eve of a series of elections in which the rise of the Front National could benefit the Socialist Party and penalise the UMP."

For all the political parties, municipal elections in March are crucial. The Socialist Party, which dominates the majority of local councils, plans to underline the achievements of its local officials to counter the party's national fall in favour. The divided and quarrelsome UMP, which has gained very little advantage from Socialist misfortunes, hopes to reinforce its feeble presence in many towns and cities as a base to make a countrywide comeback.
The National Front is hoping to exploit both parties' woes and benefit from a general disillusionment with establishment politics.
And, whatever the real reasons behind the apparently inept posting of the integration report on the prime minister's website, the incident moved the political debate to the National Front's favourite terrain - immigration. So all in all not a good month.

Julian Nundy