Hollande's popularity hits new lows after a year at France's helm

President François Hollande was expected to bring about reform and fight austerity when he took office a year ago. But his term so far has been mired in protest and scandal.

Michel Euler/AP
A man holds a banner with pictures of world leaders and reads "wall of idiots" march during a rally to protest the austerity plan of French President François Hollande in Paris Sunday. Tens of thousands of supporters of leftist parties marched through central Paris to express disappointment with Mr. Hollande's first year in power, criticizing the leader for reneging on his promises to rein in the world of finance and enact economic stimulus.

When he was elected last year, French President François Hollande became the country’s first Socialist president to occupy the Elysée in nearly two decades.

As he marks that day today, he’s also contending with another first: Today he’s the least popular president in the Fifth Republic’s history. Three-quarters of the French disapprove of his first year on the job, and thousands of them congregated on the streets of Paris Sunday to make that message clear.

“Down with austerity!” read signs carried by angry leftists, who say Mr. Hollande has not done enough to defend the French from the budget slashing of the European Union.

Hollande was elected as a president for change. Dubbed “Mr. Normal,” the bespectacled Hollande was considered an antidote to former, right-leaning President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose flashy lifestyle, including his marriage to a supermodel while in office, exasperated the French. Hollande promised to keep his head down and the European debt crisis at bay, while safeguarding France’s vaunted social security system.

To be sure, economic crisis has sapped the popularity of presidents across the globe: To be popular now is an exception. But as public debt mounts and unemployment remains stubbornly high and growing, Hollande has earned a reputation for being ineffectual at best, and at worst, incompetent. The victories he has scored in his first year, most notably his military intervention in Mali, have been overshadowed by a persistent pessimism that France is on an uncertain path.

“The main task for a president is to give sense to his presidency, with meaning and direction, and unfortunately, Hollande has totally proved incapable of giving such a sense,” says Guy Carcassonne, a professor of law at Paris West University Nanterre La Défense. The French might agree or disagree with that direction, he says, and they understand the limits of a presidency, especially after just a year in office. “But what they don’t forgive is this feeling that he doesn’t know where to go.”

An anxious France

In a recent survey by the polling group BVA, only 24 percent of respondents said they are happy with Hollande’s first year in office, far below the ratings of his predecessors over the past half century, even that of the controversial Mr. Sarkozy.

The economy has played a central role in the anxious mood in France, where 80 percent say they’ve personally felt the effects of the economic crisis, according to a recent YouGov-Cambridge poll.

Hollande remains trapped between the need for growth and competition and a public firmly against spending cuts and reforms to labor laws that would make the market more flexible.

France’s economic problems started well before Hollande’s election in May 2012, but he has failed to turn back rising unemployment, which has grown month after month for nearly two years, though swaths of southern Europe are much worse off. According to the International Labor Organization, unemployment in France stands at 10.6 percent. The country needed an extension for an EU-mandate to get its deficit to below 3 percent of gross domestic product by this year. And the International Monetary Fund recently forecast recession.

A centerpiece of Hollande’s campaign platform, a 75 percent tax on the rich, was stymied by the courts, and led to a public relations disaster: Actor Gérard Depardieu decided to flee the country. Hollande’s domestic woes have left him without a strong voice at the EU, after many French had hoped he could form an anti-austerity coalition against Germany.

The result is that many feel that they are being led by someone who doesn’t know what path he is taking, says Dan Castro, a men’s clothes seller in Paris. “He takes one step forward, and two back. The French are afraid that they have a leader without direction,” Mr. Castro says.

Hollande acknowledged his abysmal ratings in an interview with Reuters and the Agence French-Presse but defended his first year. "I'm aware how serious the situation is. It's a president's duty to stay the course and to look beyond today's squalls. It's called perseverance," he said.

"People can criticize my decisions, think I am on the wrong track or have not taken the right route, but if there is one thing I am sure of it's that I have taken major decisions for France – many more in 10 months than were taken in 10 years."

Scandal and protest

Hollande received a bump in support earlier this year after he authorized the military to intervene in Mali to stop the southward advance of Al Qaeda-linked rebels who occupied the north of the country after a coup last March. He has also succeeded in pushing some labor reform forward.

But those victories were quickly overshadowed by scandal and protest over his move to legalize gay marriage, which drew unexpected fury to the streets.

As he pushed through a campaign pledge to legalize gay marriage and abortion, tens of thousands protested the move. Some of those protesters are conservatives who say they are simply fighting to preserve traditional notions of family, but others have joined the movement simply as a no-confidence vote for Hollande.

In the midst of this, the president’s former budget minister admitted in April to repeatedly lying about having a Swiss bank account, drawing widespread anger.

“The Cahuzac scandal has opened Pandora’s box,” says Alexandre Kateb, professor of economics at Sciences Po, referring to the former budget minister. “There is a real fragility of the government. These are difficult times…. And there is a feeling that [Hollande] lacks persuasion and the force of authority.”

The talk of “revolution” is heard on the streets. For Castro, the only viable option is for Hollande to step down before his term ends. “If he loves France, that is what he would do,” he says. “Just like the pope.”

Dominique Moisi, a French analyst, took it further in an April piece in the Financial Times: “France’s president looks ever more like a modern Louis XVI – the king guillotined by revolutionaries,” Mr. Moisi wrote.

“After five years of economic and social crisis, and with no light at the end of the tunnel, the French are losing patience not only with their politicians but with all of their elites. Mr Hollande, like Louis, might prove to be an unexceptional man in exceptional times.”

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