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Hollande’s difficult first year

French President François Hollande waves at journalists in the courtyard of the Élysée Palace in Paris last Friday. Photo: Reuters

French President François Hollande waves at journalists in the courtyard of the Élysée Palace in Paris last Friday. Photo: Reuters

François Hollande has had a terrible first year in office. Elected President of France on May 6 last year, he took office on May 15, 2012 and is today the most unpopular President on record, with a disapproval rating of 75 per cent.

Expectations were extremely high when Hollande won last year’s election

Hollande became the first Socialist President of France since François Mitterrand left office in 1995 and campaigned on a platform of less austerity as a way out of the eurozone crisis. His predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, became the first French incumbent to be defeated in a presidential election since 1981.

Expectations were extremely elevated when Hollande won last year’s election; the unemployment rate was high, Sarkozy’s brash personal style had irritated many Frenchmen, and many voters were attracted to Hollande’s emphasis on incentives for economic growth as well as his ‘normal’ personality.

In last year’s election Hollande’s support was solid among left-wing voters, but he also attracted the support of centrists – François Bayrou, the centrist candidate who got 9.1 per cent of the vote in the first round of voting said he would vote for Mr Hollande in the second round. Furthermore, the fact that Marine Le Pen, the leader of the right-wing National Front, who received 17.9 per cent of the vote in the first round of voting, refused to endorse Sarkozy, must surely have helped Hollande be elected President.

Hollande has so far given the impression of being a weak leader (the polls make this very clear) who is torn between trying to accommodate his party’s left-wing (which is still powerful, has not reformed itself and led protests against his government last week) as well as the country’s business sector. L’Express, for example, now labels him ‘Mr Weak’.

The economic figures are not encouraging: last month, unemployment hit an all-time high of 3.2 million people and the jobless rate (10.6 per cent) rose for the 23rd consecutive month, economic growth is stagnant, France has missed its budget-deficit target of three per cent and public spending is still high.

Hollande, furthermore, introduced a 75 per cent tax on income over €1 million soon after he was elected but this was rejected by the courts as being unconstitutional –a humiliating blow for the President.

To be fair to the French President, he has actually introduced some labour market flexibility and slightly decreased the state’s involvement in the economy. However, it is doubtful whether his own party’s left-wing will allow him to carry on in this direction.

Hollande has also been plagued by scandals involving both his personal life and his government.

In June last year, for example, his partner, Valérie Trierweiler created an uproar by endorsing Socialist Party dissident Olivier Falorni who was running against the President’s ex-partner and mother of his four children, Ségolène Royal, in the legislative elections, which the Socialists won. Royal was subsequently defeated by the left-wing Socialist, in a major embarrassment for Hollande.

In March, following allegations of tax evasion and money laundering, France’s Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzac resigned. His primary role had been to combat tax evasion and cut government spending, and he later admitted to having lied about a secret Swiss bank account he had for over 20 years. This was another awkward moment for Hollande, who during last year’s presidential campaign had promised a clean government.

In reaction to the Cahuzac scandal Hollande forced his ministers to disclose their assets, which revealed that seven of them had assets of over €1 million – more embarrassment for the President.

In social policy Hollande was elected on platform to legalise gay marriage, but his decision to do so sparked some of the largest protests seen in France in recent years, and divided the nation.

Additionally, his decision to allow gay couples to adopt children was particularly polarising, with the country evenly divided between pro- and anti-camps. Some of his critics accused Hollande of wasting time on such divisive issues, and failing to focus more extensively on the poor state of the economy.

Relations between France and Germany are obviously still good, but under Hollande it is fair to say that strains have occurred in this crucial relationship which has served as the motor of European integration over the decades.

Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel do not see eye to eye on a number of issues, particularly on the balance between economic growth and austerity measures.

Sadly, this strain in the relationship between France and Germany comes on the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty, a landmark pact which changed the relationship between these two important countries and which helped secure enduring peace in Europe for over six decades.

Hollande has allowed some of his ministers to publicly criticise Germany sharply and his Socialist Party to draft a paper highlighting Merkel’s “selfish intransigence”. He also allowed other ministers to attack the party document, but he has not commented on it himself, leading to uncertainty about the President’s position.

France’s military intervention in Mali is considered to be a rare case of Hollande exercising true leadership and of making a correct clear decision. Most of the country supported him on this, and he did both France and Europe a great service by taking such a bold stand.

If only he could prove to be so decisive in focusing on the economy he might see an improvement in his approval ratings.

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