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No more Mr Normal

The January 10 cover of tabloid magazine Closer, featuring photos of François Hollande on a moped allegedly en route to meet his mistress, rocked the French presidency and set the tone of another gruelling year for the incumbent. The news that Hollande was having an affair with film star Julie Gayet led to his messy and very public break-up with first lady Valérie Trierweiler, shattered his carefully cultured “Mr Normal” image and destroyed the French media’s long-standing tradition of turning a blind eye to politicians’ indiscretions. Trierweiler’s account of the drama-filled break-up would become one of the year’s best-selling books, even taking her on a cross-Channel PR campaign.
    About French press breaking a taboo
    Trierweiler embarks on UK book tour
Photo: Thomas Coex, AFP

Rise of the French jihadist

In February, FRANCE 24 broke a story about a young man who left his comfortable life in France to wage jihad with the Islamic State (IS) group, aka ISIS or ISIL, in war-torn Syria. The radical Islamist movement became a major news item in 2014 as militants took over large swaths of Iraq and Syria, and released grisly videos in which Western hostages were beheaded. The man profiled by FRANCE 24 eventually left the IS group to join moderate rebels, but reports would emerge about other French nationals fighting in the ranks of the IS group.
    Confessions of a French jihadist
    About the fears of Syrian blowback
Photo: Mohhamed Wesam, Aleppo Media Centre/AFP

Reshuffling the deck

As French jobless figures reached historic highs and approval ratings for a president sank to record lows, François Hollande unveiled a new Socialist government in March. He picked the tough-talking interior minister Manuel Valls for the post of prime minister, and his former partner Ségolène Royal as environment minister. However, simmering tensions within the cabinet boiled over five months later, forcing out the more left-wing figures within the group.
Unemployment figures were still climbing as the end of the year approached.
    Valls goes from ‘top cop’ to prime minister
    The storm brewing inside France’s Socialist Party
Photo: Lionel Bonaventure, AFP

Party crashers

The far-right National Front (FN) party made historic gains at the ballot box in 2014. It conquered eleven new municipalities in mayoral elections in March, claimed the most votes out of any French party in European parliamentary elections in May, and sent two of its members to the Senate for the first time in September. The FN’s ability to gain new footholds in different levels of government has many wondering if party leader Marine Le Pen could soon cross one final threshold – that of the Elysée presidential palace.
    Far-right on top in European parliamentary poll
    Has the National Front already won the war of ideas?
Photo: Georges Gobet, AFP

World remembers D-Day

As tensions rose between the West and Russia over conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, world leaders converged on the shores of Normandy in June to remember the heroes of D-Day on the 70th anniversary of the WWII campaign. 2014 was rich with commemorations, marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation, the centenary of the start of WWI, and the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
    Historic D-Day anniversary
    New WWI memorial unveiled
Photo: Damien Meyer, AFP

Gaza conflict spills onto Paris streets

Israel’s military assault on the Palestinian enclave of Gaza this summer touched off clashes in the streets of Paris. Citing attacks targeting synagogues and Jewish businesses during pro-Palestinian marches in and near the French capital, authorities moved to ban some of the rallies. However, protesters pushed ahead with gatherings that were mostly peaceful, but inevitably ended with violent confrontations between youths and riot police.
    Clashes erupt at banned pro-Palestine rally
    Opinion: An anti-Semitic nation?
Photo: Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

Tug of warships

Paris spent much of the year deliberating over the delivery of two French-built warships to Moscow, amid allegations Russian leaders have stoked violence in eastern Ukraine. Under pressure from NATO partners, France has kept one completed Mistral-class vessel moored at the western Saint-Nazaire shipyard. But reneging on the contract could cost France dearly, with billions of euros, thousands of jobs, and its reputation as a trustworthy defence supplier on the line.
    Webdoc: To Russia with Love
    France ‘may never deliver Mistral warships’
Photo: Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

No red carpet for Netflix

After clearing myriad protectionist hurdles, US-based streaming giant Netflix made its widely anticipated debut in France in the autumn. However, critics and consumers gave it a lukewarm welcome, bemoaning its limited spread of movies and series. Ironically, even the Netflix-produced House of Cards series was missing from the line-up. As part of its charm offensive, the company announced it is bankrolling a similar French-made political drama based in seedy Marseille.
    Netflix to produce French-style House of Cards
Photo: Stéphane De Sakutin, AFP

Sarkozy’s comeback

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy pledged he would quit politics altogether if he lost his re-election bid in 2012, but rumours of his comeback swirled before he even left the Elysée Palace that year. In a primetime TV interview on September 21, Sarkozy declared he had “no choice” but to return to politics. Two months later he was elected to head his right-wing UMP party, with speculation shifting to his chances of reclaiming the French presidency in 2017 as he battles a string of legal woes.
    On the perils of discussing Sarkozy over lunch
Photo: Thomas Samson, AFP

Culture of controversy

France in general, and Paris in particular, are renowned the world over as boundary-pushing hubs of artistic expression. But embattled cultural exhibitions cast a shadow over the City of Light this year. Defenders of more conservative tastes felled Los Angeles artist Paul McCarthy's notorious “butt plug” sculpture in central Paris in October, while protesters succeeded in blocking at least some showings of the controversial “human zoo” exhibition by South African Brett Bailey.
    A season for Paris art
    Critics rage against ‘human zoo’ exhibit
Photo: Bertrand Guay, AFP

In Nobel company

Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai was the star of the 2014 Nobel Prizes, but it was an exceptional year for French nationals as well. Novelist Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, while Jean Tirole picked up the economics award. Although both men are barely household names in their native land, their prizes gave a much-needed boost to France.
    Q&A: ‘Modiano not well known outside France’
Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand, AFP

The last homecoming

As the year drew to a close, France received unexpected good news in the release of hostage Serge Lazarevic. The last remaining French hostage abroad, the 51-year-old was held captive by Islamic militants in North Africa for nearly three years. His arrival home was a boost to President Hollande, even amid reports four jihadists had been freed from prisons in Mali in exchange for Lazarevic’s freedom. Earlier in the year, four French journalists kidnapped in Syria returned home after a much shorter captivity, but French mountain guide Hervé Gourdel was seized and killed by Algerian militants.
    Was French hostage swapped for detained jihadists?
    ‘Cowardly’ murder of French hiker in Algeria
Photo: Bertrand Guay, AFP

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France: The year in pictures