The Hapless President: Is François Hollande Re-Electable?
François Hollande is already viewed as the most unsuccessful president in recent French history. His hapless leadership has enabled the rise of Marine Le Pen's far-right Front National. He plans to run again in 2017, but does he stand a chance?
There's a scene in Yves Jeuland's most recent film, in which two older men, one of them a well-known historian, talk about François Hollande. They're guests at an evening event in the Élysée Palace, where the president is honoring author Jean d'Ormesson. The two men, wearing dark suits and holding champagne flutes, stand off to the side as they converse. The historian shakes his head and mumbles: "I have never seen a politician who had such good luck before his election, and nothing but bad luck afterwards."
Hollande has often been the cause of much head-shaking during his three-and-a-half years as president of France to date.
When Jeuland's documentary, for which he accompanied Hollande for six months, recently aired on French television, it elicited comments that the real star was not the president but his press officer. "We didn't see Monsieur le Président, but a local politician," said one political commentator. On Twitter, people wondered why Hollande had even agreed to such a project. "What does he get out of it?" some asked.
Everyone sounded equally incredulous.
The film, which is almost two hours long and offers an in-depth view of Hollande, is called "Un temps de Président." Hollande is seen making notes on his speeches with a blue, felt-tipped pen, and having lunch with his prime minister. But even in this film he remains distant, a peculiar president.
The man who said he wanted to run France "normally" has concealed himself behind a mask. Even in his ballroom-like office, behind decorative double doors, he seems more like someone playing a president than the president himself. The effort it costs him to play the role is almost always apparent. And the camera isn't to blame.
A Virtually Impossible Mission
He still has 18 months left to shed his reputation as the most hapless president of the Fifth Republic. But achieving that has become a major effort -- a virtually impossible mission.
All the issues he failed to address in previous years have now become obstacles. He believed for too long that the country, reforms and the economic recovery would essentially happen automatically. But he was wrong. About 4 million Frenchmen are now out of work, although the unemployment figure declined slightly in September, for the first time in years. The economy is reeling instead of growing, as it alternates between shrinking and stagnating. Factories are closing every day, and there is growing resentment among workers.
And Hollande, who set out to please everyone, is now incurring the wrath of all. In addition to struggling against economic troubles, against recession and unemployment, he also needs to convince the French that Marine Le Pen and her far-right party, the Front National, are not an alternative.
The Front National has finally become a major political force in recent years, during Hollande's term in office. When important regional elections are held on Dec. 6, two of the country's large regions could fall to Le Pen and her niece Marion. One in three Frenchmen now say they could imagine voting for Le Pen. If the presidential election were held tomorrow, she would be ahead of the incumbent in a runoff vote.
Is Hollande a hopeless case?
He can be portrayed as a statesman in a documentary filmed in his palace, and he can order his army to bomb Islamic State militants in Syria. But even his foreign policy, in which he seems much more decisive than on domestic issues, has done nothing to improve his poor approval ratings.
No Love Lost
It seems that no matter what he does, Hollande remains deeply unpopular with the French. Some 79 percent are dissatisfied with his performance as president. And for once commentators on both the left and the right agree: There is no love lost between François Hollande and the French.
What does this president have left on his agenda? Does he intend to achieve a major success in his remaining year-and-a-half in office and reform his country? No one honestly believes that anymore. At the moment, it seems as if he had only one overriding goal: To run for re-election in 2017 -- despite everything.
He's also taking steps to ensure that no one gets in his way. He appointed former Interior Minister Manual Valls, who had been a star in the government, to the post of prime minister. But he has already used up his vigor in his new office, and his poll numbers are sinking rapidly. Valls is the one politician who would have had not only the best prospects but also the ambition to run for president.
It already feels like Hollande is back in campaign mode -- perhaps because he much preferred being a candidate for office over being president today. The French not only respected but actually liked Hollande as a candidate.
'A Moderator of His Own Inaction'
Despite empty government coffers, he has recently announced tax cuts for lower income classes, the voters he has disappointed the most so far -- and who are now turning to the Front National in droves. This is not exactly a far-reaching strategy, since less than half of taxable citizens pay income tax today as a result of tax breaks introduced in 2014 by Valls for lower-income families. He is leaving the national pension system untouched, but he is talking a lot about reforming supplementary pensions -- a reform that would be easier to achieve.
His schedule has been fuller than ever in recent weeks, as he gives one interview after the next. He told the monthly hunting magazine Le Chasseur français: "I've lived with cows before." He also said that wild boars could be harmful to the forest. And when describing his role, he said: "The president is like a father for the French; he shares their pain."
His communication offensive came so suddenly and was so concentrated that a former advisor to François Mitterand, Hollande's great role model, called him "a moderator of his own inaction." A large newspaper asked in a cover story whether actions would finally follow his words. It sounded like an entreaty.
Élysée officials say that Hollande is working "day and night." He already stopped taking summer vacations two years ago. Nevertheless, he still needs to become more visible and more accessible, say his advisers. The country's highest office as an example of permanent interaction? Hollande dedicates school cafeterias and job centers, and he responds to voters' questions on talk shows. Most are disappointed citizens. In these moments on TV, he comes across as a clerk who has gotten his files mixed up.
Frozen in Place
Meanwhile, there is growing discontent among all those who don't want a handshaking, PR president, but instead believe that France needs someone who can govern and make decisions.
The reception was icy when he visited a shipyard in the port town of Saint-Nazaire in mid-October. One dockworker even refused to shake his hand.
"There is no longer any reason to be polite in this country," he said, as Hollande tried to shake his hand. "What we need now is to get concrete things done."
A TV camera recorded Hollande's reaction. The president looked blankly at the man, without nodding, responding or saying anything. He seemed frozen in place.
Hollande has the very upright posture of short men, a stiffness and a forced dignity that many find off-putting. In the past, when he served as a member of parliament for his party, he was popular among the French for his jokes and his quick-wittedness. Nowadays, when he tries to interact with the French people, he feels more like a director of the school of administration he attended than the man so many voted for to run their country.
Apathy and Trepidation
The odd thing about Hollande is that he has stressed from the very beginning that his task as president is "to unite and comfort." But the only other president before him to arouse so much anger in the country was his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. In recent weeks alone, police officers, teachers, doctors and farmers have demonstrated against working conditions. Whereas Sarkozy annoyed the French with his hyperactivity, Hollande vexes them with his apathy and trepidation.
France's second-largest union recently boycotted a social conference initiated by the government. Turmoil is in the cards, as was recently the case at Air France, where employees tore their supervisors' shirts and physically threatened them.
"Air France is not France," was the president's only comment on the incident. But he doesn't explain where he wants to go with his policies, or what he wants to achieve for France, which seems more anxious than ever under his leadership.
He was interviewed on the radio a few days after his visit to Saint-Nazaire. At 7:30 a.m., Monsieur le Président de la République was sitting in a studio at radio station RTL.
"What did it feel like, to have a worker refusing to shake the hand of his Socialist president?" the interviewer asked forcefully. "He had something to say to me, and I listened. I didn't insult him," Hollande replied.
He was trying to say that he, unlike Nicolas Sarkozy, could exercise self-control. He is never off-message. Hollande avoids clear statements, just as he avoids decisions. Those who work with him all say that he is a very good listener. He is well-versed on the issues, even complicated ones, says a former minister, but adds that the president is "very indecisive" when it comes time to make decisions.
The radio interviewer asked him whether he supported the reform plans of Air France management. Hollande evaded the question and said that it was a matter of the "veracity of the numbers, which need to be checked." The interviewer was annoyed and replied: "I asked you a clear question."
Sometimes it seems as if Hollande were afraid that he could be judged by what he says. In one remark, which has come back to haunt him, he promised to "reverse" the curve in his country's unemployment statistics.
Because it is already clear that nothing will come of it, he has announced that he will provide "training for every job-seeker" by the end of the month. A national retraining program for close to 4 million Frenchmen? Seriously?
Instead of addressing the causes of the "marasme," the sclerotic state that has taken hold in France, he is constantly announcing some new "pact" or "initiative."
The measures he touts all have impressive-sounding names, opulent portmanteau words that quickly turn into acronyms. One is called the "Crédit d'impôt pour la compétitivité et l'emploi," (tax credit for encouraging competitiveness and employment) or CICE. The measure does include a reduction in labor costs, but only by six percent and only in the low-wage sector. Like so many things Hollande proposes, it isn't enough. He keeps lining up compromises, but in the end he is merely compromising himself. Even worse, he is harming his country in the process.
This is how Pascal Lamy, the former head of the World Trade Organization and a friend of Hollande, explains his way of thinking: "François has two brains, one that recognizes the situation as it is, and another one that sets policy."
Socialist Hollande has deeply disappointed the French -- both those on the left and the pragmatists in the center -- and the remaining 18 months of his presidency will do nothing to change that.
The beneficiaries of all this frustration are Le Pen and her far-right organization, the Front National. Many French are sick of constantly alternating conservative and socialist governments, because no matter who is in charge, their lives remain the same. The established parties seem to be losing more and more credibility each year. And the worse things get for Hollande, the better things will be for Le Pen.
Is Le Pen's Rise Hollande's Key Achievement?
Hollande can also consider it his achievement that Le Pen has managed to turn the Front from a protest party into a real political force. Instead of opposing Le Pen's nationalism, he has continued the policies of his predecessor, Sarkozy, a policy of empty promises and hollow words.
When Le Pen's party won elections for the European Parliament in 2014, Hollande, looking serious, said on the evening of the election: "The result does not correspond to France's role in Europe." But he cannot change the reality with important sounding pronouncements. The Front National now has twice as many seats in the European Parliament as his own Socialist Party.
Le Pen claims to be fighting against "those at the top." The approach is successful because the Paris elite is indeed aloof. Hollande, the prototype of this special caste, grew up in wealthy Neuilly and graduated from three of the so-called Grand Schools. He and some of his ministers and state secretaries were in the same class at France's renowned École nationale d'administration, or Ena.
The president has now officially declared war on Le Pen and dubbed her his most important opponent in regional elections in December, which are seen as an early indicator for the presidential election. This would never have happened in the past. Up until now, the established parties preferred to simply ignore the Front National. But that is no longer an option. The question is whether this will not in fact increase Le Pen's popularity even further.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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