French President Francois Hollande defiant in face of criticism

President pleads patience on his plans to rebuild economy in face of criticism and falling polls

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 November, 2012, 2:57am

France's president just cannot seem to win.

Six months after sweeping to power on an anti-austerity wave, polls say Socialist President Francois Hollande is increasingly disliked. Leftists are disappointed he is not spending more state money to create jobs. Critics on the right say he is raising too many taxes.

Hollande defended his presidency and answered critics on Tuesday with what is becoming his signature message: "Recovery takes time." Fixing a zero-growth economy and 10 per cent unemployment did not happen overnight, he said at the first big news conference of his term.

Hollande staked out bolder ground on foreign policy. He defended Greece and minimised differences with Germany over fixing Europe's economy.

He gave a big boost to a new Syrian opposition coalition by becoming the first Western nation to recognise it as "the sole legitimate voice of the Syrian people." And he warned that terrorists in northern Mali had become the biggest threat to France's national security.

But France's economy is Hollande's biggest challenge.

"We should be capable of doing better in spending less," he said. "We have to show - France more than others, and more than Germany - seriousness and competitiveness."

But that drew accusations that he had reneged on promises to avoid the kind of austerity measures imposed on struggling Greece and Spain.

Hollande is being buffeted by skittish markets, German calls for spending cuts and his leftist voter base.

To markets, he pledged to stick to targets that would bring France's deficit down to 3 per cent of gross domestic product next year.

To Germany, he said he was determined "to find the good compromise in the interest of Europe" with Chancellor Angela Merkel.

To leftist voters who blame banks for Europe's financial woes, he promised a draft law by the end of the year to split banks' retail activities from their riskier investment activities.

But it is unclear whether any of this will quiet the growing criticism of Hollande's presidency.

Valerie Rosso-Debord of the opposition conservative party UMP said after Hollande's news conference that he was leading a "zig-zag" policy "that shows neither direction nor ambition".

Three polls released on Tuesday showed approval ratings for Hollande stood between 41 per cent and 44 per cent.

"The only question that matters is the state of France in five years [when his term expires]," Hollande said. "I am not preparing for the outcome of the next election. I'm preparing for the outcome of the next generation."

Ultimately, Hollande insisted: "Decline is not our destiny."