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Francois Hollande, a president under siege

Taking over the French presidency in the midst of the worst economic crisis in decades was never going to be a bed of roses. Francois Hollande himself had predicted as much. But the Socialist, whose election was heralded as a new dawn for France and a Europe gloomy with austerity, could never have imagined the disillusionment to be this deep, this soon.

As Hollande marks his first year in office - the anniversary is Monday - he must be wondering how it unravelled so fast, to the extent that only one in four people consider he is doing a good job and most would pick Nicolas Sarkozy if they had to vote again. His unpopularity at home has undermined him in Europe, where Hollande has failed to sway German Chancellor Angela Merkel from the austerity course that has been criticised as choking growth on the continent, including in France.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal published Friday, Hollande explained his difficulty with Merkel in terms of Germany's election schedule. "Ms Merkel has upcoming elections in September and cannot give the impression that she's taking greater care of Europeans than of Germans," he said. But Hollande himself also draws blame for failing to make a convincing case for his pragmatic blend of fiscal discipline and fiscal solidarity.

Inheriting a broken economy hasn't helped. "Change is now," the Socialist leader declared during his election campaign, promising to make growth and job creation his top priorities. A year on, the economy has stagnated and the number of jobless is growing by nearly 900 a day, hitting a record 3.2 million in March. France's 10.6-per-cent unemployment rate is still a far cry off Spain's 27 per cent, but the growing lag with Germany, which has a 6.9-per-cent unemployment rate, is a cause of deep anxiety.

Hollande rightly pointed to the fact that the problems in Europe's second-largest economy are structural and that turning the situation around will take time. To buy time, he has introduced public-service jobs for youth in deprived areas and introduced a bonus system for companies that hire young people and retain older workers. He has also begun to tackle the heart of the matter, the loss of French competitiveness over the past three decades. To lower labour costs, he has introduced 20 billion euros (26.3 billion dollars) in tax cuts. He has also nudged trade unions into a pact with employers on wide-ranging labour reforms, an unprecedented feat for a leftist leader.

A gay marriage bill that made it through Parliament despite mass protests and a successful intervention against Islamist rebels in Mali count among Hollande's other achievements to date. But his progress has been obscured by his image - that of a dithering consensus man who fails to command authority within his government or to inspire confidence in a people that like their presidents on the monarchical side.

"Your normalcy is not equal to the challenges," Sarkozy sniped at Hollande during a presidential debate last year, referring to his opponent's promise to be a "normal" president. The French, it seems, are increasingly in agreement. Summing up Hollande's dilemma, Dominique Seux, editor of the financial daily Les Echos, told France Inter radio, "Francois Hollande maybe has the right course but not the authority. Nicolas Sarkozy had the authority but not the course."

Can the first Socialist leader since 1995 turn it around or is he condemned to be a lame-duck president for the next four years, a "Mr Weak" as L'Express news magazine labelled him on the front cover of its April 10 edition? His biggest test yet could come from his own Socialist Party, which exacerbated tensions with Berlin last week by lambasting Merkel's "selfish intransigence" in a draft document.

The document, which was later revised to exclude the remark, appeared aimed at pressuring Hollande to take a more confrontational stance towards Germany on austerity. But Hollande is still basing his story around compromise. "France and Germany," he said this week, "must work together, whatever the economic climate, the personalities in charge and the sensibilities."

Copyright Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 2013


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