By Mathieu von Rohr in Paris
On a recent trip by French President François Hollande to the eastern city of Dijon, everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. The visit earlier this week was intended to improve the president's miserable approval ratings and "renew direct contact with the French." Instead, Hollande found himself so clearly confronted with the wrath of the people as never before. He was visibly overwhelmed.
"Monsieur Hollande, where have your promises gone?" one young man hollered out to the president as he arrived in the working-class quarter of Les Grésilles. Two bodyguards immediately and violently carried the man out of the crowd. The image of the scene was too disastrous for the television news crews to pass up. Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, once told a heckler to "get lost, you poor jerk!" He never lived the phrase down.
Before Hollande arrived, the police had already dispersed a group of unionists who were holding up a picture of early French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès, "to remind him that he's a Socialist." French newspaper Le Monde reported another resident was silenced after calling out to Hollande, "We're still waiting for your change, François!"
The 'President of Kisses'
After Hollande became the Socialists' candidate for president -- in the party's first-ever direct primary election -- he relished the public strolls that brought him closer to his supporters. They were scheduled at every campaign event, and Hollande was happy to take the time for them. So many elderly women wanted kisses on the cheek from him that, shortly after his election, he jokingly called himself le président des bisous, or "the president of kisses."
Since taking office 10 months ago, Hollande has experienced the fastest drop in popularity ever seen in French presidential politics. In June of last year, those who said they had confidence in him numbered between 51 and 63 percent, depending on the polling institute. That number is now 30 to 37 percent, nearing the lowest approval rating of any French president on record: Nicolas Sarkozy in May 2011, at 20 percent.
Something has changed among the people, evidenced by not just opinion polls, but also Hollande's two-day, meet-the-people trip to Dijon. A few hours after leaving behind the unhappy hecklers, Hollande asked a woman who was passing by if she wanted to take a photo with him. She answered coldly, "We see enough of you on TV."
As if that weren't enough, Hollande met another woman shortly thereafter who said to him, "Don't marry her, we don't like her in France." She was referring to Valérie Trierweiler, Hollande's long-time partner. The president fell silent in embarrassment until the woman had gone.
Unpopularity Spread across Political Spectrum
Hollande's advisors had imagined the trip differently. Instead of a few charming shots of the president shaking hands and kissing cheeks, they got a PR disaster. It didn't occur to them that this is what you get when you send a deeply unpopular president to meet everyday people without a clear message. Now Hollande's staff can at least see that there's something to the approval ratings after all -- and the French are following along on the evening news.
Hollande's biggest problem is that he's not just unpopular in one political demographic, but in many. That's true as much among parts of the Socialist Party base, which has already labeled light reforms and minimal budget cuts as betrayal, as it is among many centrists, who had expected more pragmatism from him. That's not to mention the right, which is just as incensed by Hollande's economic policies as it is by his decision to legalize same-sex marriage.
Few pundits in France are wholeheartedly defending Hollande. Even in the left-wing media, which had previously been inclined to grant him favorable coverage, commentators are now accusing him of having no vision, doing too little, speaking publicly too seldom and leaving his government muddling through.
Disapproval Has Roots in Economy
Meanwhile, Hollande is struggling to find convicing counterarguments as unemployment has risen to 11 percent, economic data looks more dismal by the week, industrial output is taking a nosedive and a recovery is nowhere to be seen. As long as the economy doesn't improve, no trip to connect with the people will be able to boost Hollande's popularity.
When Nicolas Sarkozy slid down to this low point of approval, he still took carefully choreographed trips into the public, where police had already weeded out any protesters or political opponents from the places he was to visit. But Hollande can't afford to do as Sarkazy, lest he make himself vulnerable to unfavorable comparisons with his former rival.
On the same evening in Dijon as the series of snubs and heckles, Hollande's advisors tried to correct the image. The fact that the police had forcibly removed the agitator displeased the president, he said, and next time they should show more "understanding." The next day he was back on the streets, tirelessly shaking hands in front of city hall -- so far, without incident.
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