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'Only a miracle can save François Hollande'

Ben McPartland · 6 May 2014, 11:00

Published: 06 May 2014 11:00 GMT+02:00

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Where has it all gone wrong for François Hollande over the last two years?

If his first year at the helm wasn’t bad enough, things have got even worse over the last twelve months and left him with approval ratings of just 18 percent – and they are still falling.

With the French economy still in the doldrums and unemployment levels breaking records each month, the thought of Hollande running for a second term in 2017 seems a ridiculous notion.

On Tuesday he defended his record on live TV against accusations he had made "amateur" mistakes, asking the public to judge him only at the end of his mandate in 2017. 

But is there anything the head of state can do to turn it around and give him a chance of experiencing for a second time those jubilant scenes on Place de la Bastille after his win over Sarkozy?

“No, only a miracle can save him,” says political analyst Nonna Mayer from Sciences Po university in Paris.

Barring that miracle there are some things that Hollande could do to boost his popularity, although whether they are best thing for France or not is another matter.

Look to the left

The reason Hollande is the most unpopular president in France’s history is because he has lost the support of the people who voted him into power just two years ago. It’s not just his failure to turn the economy around but it’s the reforms he has put forward that have left his core voter base on the left feeling betrayed.

He promised them growth rather than austerity and yet two years on he has just announced a €50 billion worth of cuts and freezes. French politics professor Philippe Marliere, from UCL, says those who backed Hollande see no difference in terms of policies from Sarkozy.

His "Responsibility Pact", which aims to cut labour taxes for firms in the hope of boosting recruitment is seen as Hollande bowing to the needs of big business, rather than workers. One thing he must try to do over the next three years is win back this base. Making a gesture to those on low salaries and the middle classes, would help believes Sciences Po’s Nonna Mayer, but “I’m afraid it might be too late”. Hollande has talked about cutting taxes for lower income households. Get it done François.

The five best and worst moments of Hollande's second year

Less talk, more action

The pace of reform under Hollande’s government has been far too slow up to now and the president himself admits it. There has been plenty of talk, but very little action. For example he announced his heralded “Responsibility pact” in his New Year’s address but more than four months down the line, it remains a vague plan with no flesh on the bones that many think is doomed to failure anyway. Hollande accepts he has to do more and do it quickly. “We must go even faster because this is unacceptable to the French, they want results,” Hollande told the public on Tuesday.

SEE ALSO: Ten nightmare moments from Hollande's first year

Story continues below…

Get unemployment down

It seems as if everything hinges on the monthly unemployment figures. Even Hollande himself said he would not run for a second term in 2017 if he had failed to bring record unemployment down. He clearly believes he can do it. As soon as Hollande made a promise to stem the rise in unemployment by the end of 2013, he effectively hung everything on these jobless figures. That promise was famously not kept. Hollande has to hope business leaders will indeed do more to recruit workers in return for a cut in payroll charges, but there is no guarantee that will happen. The embattled head of state must find a way to get this weight off his neck. Sciences Po’s Nonna Mayer says besides that miracle a drop in unemployment is the one thing that could save Hollande.

Be less normal

Hollande famously vowed to be a “normal” French president after five years of the omnipresent Nicolas Sarkozy. He certainly proved he was a normal French president when he was caught having a secret affair with an actress. But apart from this scandal, for which his popularity actually increased slightly, Hollande’s attempts to be a normal guy in a very abnormal job have not worked. "Saying he was going to be Mr Normal was nonsensical,” says French politics professor Marliere. “On paper the French president has the most power of any democratic leader in the world.  He needs to stop saying it’s a normal job.” Marliere says Hollande’s image needs work on it. “He comes across as too aloof as though he doesn’t understand the suffering of the French people.”

Be more serious and firm

Hollande is known for his sense of humour and quips, but there is a time and place for all that says Marliere and it is not right now. “You can often see Hollande making little jokes, perhaps not looking serious, but sometimes it’s not good to be fun.” Hollande needs to look as though he understands the seriousness of the situation his country is in. And he needs to look as though he knows how to rectify it. Basically Hollande needs to take a leaf out of the book of his new Prime Minister Manuel Valls. "His Prime Minister is popular because he gets support from the right wing voters while Hollande is seen as weak by the right," says Mayer. 

Ben McPartland (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

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