Hollande in the pits as French lose faith

In office just a year, president is already the least popular in nation's modern history, hit by scandals and doubts he can fix economic woes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 May, 2013, 4:08am


When he swept to power last May on a wave of discontent, Francois Hollande could hardly have imagined that a year later he would be one of the most unpopular French presidents ever.

France's first Socialist president in nearly two decades, Hollande had wooed voters with promises of spurring economic growth, job creation and a break with his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy's rightwing policies and flashy style. Instead, the economy is on the edge of recession, unemployment is at a 16-year high and Hollande's government is reeling from a scandal that saw his ex-budget minister charged with tax fraud.

Since his election on May 6, Hollande's approval rating has fallen faster and deeper than any other president's since the founding of France's Fifth Republic in 1958.

And as he heads into his second year, there are few signs of the self-styled "President Normal's" troubles letting up.

"France is facing its most dramatic economic crisis in decades and it's hard to see what could reverse this," said Jean-Luc Parodi, an analyst with France's National Foundation of Political Science.

Hollande wanted to be the opposite of the 'hyper-president' Sarkozy. But he went too far and there is a feeling that he's not being active enough

"Hollande wanted to be the opposite of the 'hyper-president' Sarkozy. But he went too far and there is a feeling that he's not being active enough."

A survey by polling firm IFOP showed Hollande's approval rating down six points, with a record 74 per cent of respondents saying they were not satisfied with his performance.

The poll came as Hollande's government struggled with two major crises - the tax-fraud scandal involving ex-minister Jerome Cahuzac and a deeply divisive debate on gay marriage that saw widespread protests. Cahuzac - once the minister responsible for tackling tax evasion - was charged last month with tax fraud after admitting having an undeclared Swiss bank account and repeatedly lying about it.

The scandal struck at Hollande's core promise of running a clean government.

At the same time another key Socialist reform - a bill legalising gay marriage and adoption - sparked an unexpected wave of demonstrations from opponents, with tens of thousands taking to the streets.

The bill was eventually adopted but is now facing a constitutional challenge and opponents have vowed new protests in the hopes of forcing Hollande to back away from signing it.

But even before the latest crises, Hollande's popularity had already been in free fall.

The president's key problem, analysts said, is that a growing number of French voters simply do not believe he will be able to meet his promise of turning the economy around.

"The heart of the criticism of Hollande is that the French feel that a year after his election there has been no change in the economic situation," said Frederic Dabi, a political analyst at IFOP.

"He has a better personal image than Nicolas Sarkozy, but there are doubts about his ability and competence," Dabi said.

Hollande has been pummelled with bad economic news since coming to power. After stagnating in 2012, the French economy is expected to move into recession this year, with the International Monetary Fund predicting a contraction of 0.1 per cent. Unemployment has meanwhile grown for 23 months running, with the number of jobseekers surging to more than 3.2 million in March, beating a record set in 1997.

Hollande has scored a few wins. His decision to send French troops against Islamist rebels in Mali was widely praised. The government also convinced employers and unions to agree to labour law reforms that will give companies more flexibility and boost French competitiveness.