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Europe

Political change sweeping Europe unsettles status quo in France

Across Europe voters are searching for new faces and political alternatives. But, in France, writes Elizabeth Bryant from Paris, change doesn't seem to extend much beyond party taglines.

It still has no office or even legal status here, but after shaking up politics-as-usual in Spain, the leftist movement Podemos is now unsettling neighboring France, where the electoral landscape has long seemed paved in granite.

Podemos members are being solicited by leftist politicians and associations. French media are snagging them for interviews. "The Spaniards from Podemos: An inspiration for France?" asked the conservative weekly Challenges, in an article last month.

"We're almost seen as a UFO, something floating in space," says Paris-based lawyer and Podemos member Gaston Gonzalez, offering a wry assessment of French reactions. "But we're very confident about what we can do in Spain. We've already shown that change is possible. That we can break the wheel."

Longing for new faces

Across Europe, voters are searching for new faces and political alternatives. In countries like Greece, now governed by leftist protest party Syriza, and - where citizens movements like Podemos and the more conservative Ciudadanos made startling gains in May local - the thirst for change is driven by anger over austerity and corruption. In others, like Poland, where conservative presidential challenger Andrzej Duda pulled off a surprise victory, euro-skepticism may be the ultimate driver.

Nicolas Sarkozy

Nicolas Sarkozy has forged ahead, renaming his old UMP party, the Republicans

But in France, where President Francois Hollande's ruling Socialists hold a party conference starting Friday, change seems stuck in political taglines. Hollande, who rode to victory in 2012 on the slogan "change is now," has been in politics for more than three decades.

His longstanding rival, former conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, has been around for just as long. He has even

renamed his party

to suggest change. Both men are now 60 and eyeing another presidential run, two years from now.

Even the far-right National Front party, now a third force in French politics, is a dynasty handed from father to daughter, who are now locked in a bitter feud.

As the country looks to the next wave of elections, including regional polls in December, there is little sense of excitement. A pair of recent surveys finds three-quarters of the French electorate don't want either the deeply unpopular Hollande or his predecessor Sarkozy to run again in 2017.

"I would like to see a new face, a new party, and new politics," says 28-year-old shop worker Jean Baptiste, heading to lunch on a sunny day. "I don't want Hollande. I don't want Sarkozy. I'm hoping someone will magically appear."

Gaston Gonzales

Young voters, in particular, want different politics, says Gaston Gonzales

Widespread disillusionment

The

disenchantment in France

is also voiced by middle-aged voters like Chantal, who declined to give her last name. "We don't know who to vote for," she says. "The left has not kept its promises, and we're pretty much sick of the right."

Founded in Spain last year Podemos -"We Can" in English - already has a presence in several French cities, including Paris, where it counts a few hundred members, according to lawyer Gonzalez. It is seeking legal status as an association here, mostly to get expatriate Spaniards involved in the political process. The Greek anti-austerity party Syriza also has a branch in France.

"Can it be inspirational? Certainly yes," Gonzalez says of Podemos. "In France, young voters are not seduced by parties which still use 20th century language."

There are signs some leftist parties are trying to capture the Podemos spirit. A new French movement called Ensemble was founded two years ago, gathering strands of anti-capitalist and ecological groupings. But it remains marginal.

"If we really want to sweep out the old politics (of the mainstream parties), our parties must retreat and be at the service of a citizens' movement," firebrand leftist politician Jean-Luc Melenchon told French radio recently. "These are the people who must do the housecleaning, not us."

Elysee Palace

The Elysee Palace is the residence of the French president and symbol of the French Republic

But Gonzalez sees little chance of a Podemos spinoff here. The system is too centralized, he says, and there is little appetite for revolution. "The success of Podemos was also based on a very particular situation in Spain," Gonzalez says of a movement born out of anti-austerity protests in 2011. "Are French willing to break the wheel? I don't think so. Not for the time being."

Indeed, some French appear comfortable with the status quo. "We already have a tradition of protest through our far left parties. Syriza and Podemos are only doing what the French left did a few years ago," says Paris businessman Bertrand Lavigne. "It's true there isn't a lot of change in the French political class, but would we be better off if there was?"

For his part, Lavigne is placing his presidential hopes on Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppe. A former prime minister in the 1990s, he would be nearly 71 if he is elected in 2017. Tellingly perhaps, Juppe has topped recent polls as France's most popular politician.

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