Mali war pulls France's Hollande out of polling slump

However, the first Socialist elected to French high office in decades still faces high unemployment and low growth.

Benjamin Girette/AP
French President Francois Hollande waits for the arrival of Tanzania's President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete at the Elysee Palace in Paris earlier this month.

After six months of shrinking approval ratings amid stubbornly-high unemployment and slow economic growth, French President François Hollande has reversed the downward slide in the polls as the public praises him for his stewardship of a relatively popular French-led military intervention in Mali.

A Jan. 28 survey by pollster BVA Opinion found Mr. Hollande’s job approval increased by 4 percentage points to 44 percent. In December, Hollande's 40 percent approval was the lowest since taking office in May, the first Socialist elected here since the 1980s.

Of course with unemployment at 9.9 percent, Hollande’s handling of the intervention in Mali hardly means that his popularity is assured, French analysts say.

“If we only hear talk about social issues, gay marriage, right to vote for foreigners, medically assisted procreation, the public opinion will backlash because people will say to themselves that these are diversions in order not to talk about the real issues,” says Céline Bracq, the associate director of BVA Opinion.

A majority of French people have backed the intervention in Mali since it began on Jan. 11, with 65 percent of respondents saying they support it, according to a Jan. 19 poll by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP).

Meanwhile, advancing French troops have met little or no resistance since Saturday when seizing the cities of Gao and Timbuktu; the French were taking northern territory previously held by Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants who, in the past year, had introduced by fiat a set of harsh and ultra-orthodox interpretations of Islamic law on locals. French troops also took control of the airport of Kidal in northern Mali Wednesday.

French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius told Le Parisien newspaper Wednesday that France would soon leave Mali after what has so far appeared as a successful mission.

“We decided to put in the necessary means in personnel and equipment to fulfill this mission and strike hard,” Mr. Fabius said. “But the French presence is not scheduled to be maintained. We will leave quickly.”

Ms. Bracq says the popularity of Hollande has increased because the French public credits him with showing resoluteness since the beginning of the intervention in Mali.

“[People] consider that François Hollande is a good commander in chief and that the way he handles this issue is good, and therefore that allows him to strengthen his weaknesses,” she says, referring to Hollande’s usually perceived lack of authority and decisiveness by voters.

Philomène Girard, a resident of Ivry-sur-Seine, near Paris, says she is in favor of the French intervention “because you can’t let a people get decimated” although she believes Hollande sent troops to Mali partly for political gain at home.

“I say to myself that he wants to get a few extra votes, but still it was brave of him [to send troops] because there were risks,” 74-year-old Girard says.
Jérôme Fourquet, the associate director of the public opinion department at IFOP, says Hollande has improved his image among the public as a strong-willed president in the midst of the military operations in Mali, adding that such improvement is nonetheless hard to measure in polls.

“He was said not to be necessarily capable of making decisions in serious situations, and he proved that wrong,” Mr. Fourquet says. “He came up to the expectations of his role and he totally fits his costume of president of the republic.”

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