French President Francois Hollande's allies have launched a battle to burnish the image of the deeply unpopular leader, who some in the fractured left still see as their best hope for elections next year.
The presidential ambitions of upstart Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron and the latest string of anti-government protests are but two of the headaches facing Hollande.
But his camp is working hard to extol the government's positive achievements, and this week launched an initiative called “He Oh La Gauche!” (Hey – The Left!) — a sort of jab in the ribs to rally the left.
This is no easy feat when Hollande is plumbing the depths of public opinion — in a poll this week, only 17 percent thought he was a good president. And his Socialist Party and the left in general are deeply divided.
“The moment has come for us to wake up. We are here to mobilise and defend our achievements,” government spokesman and Hollande ally Stephane Le Foll told the first meeting of the new movement on Monday night, attended by about 600 people.
Philippe Marliere, a professor in French politics at University College London, told AFP the initiative showed that “alarm bells are ringing” for the left, one year ahead of presidential elections due in May 2017.
“This exercise comes at a very difficult time for Hollande and the Socialist Party, to show they are not dead yet, they intend to fight,” he said.
“It is a gathering of people who are there to — it is a bit surreal — support a presidential candidate who hasn't announced his candidacy yet,” said Marliere.
Hollande is trying hard to convince the French that things have improved, with growth inching upwards and unemployment slowly falling.
This idea received a boost with new figures Tuesday showing a steep drop in job-seekers in March.
Conspicuous by his absence at the meeting was Macron, Hollande's 38-year-old protege whose every move has been scrutinised by the French press seeking clues of presidential ambitions.
Daily appearances, regular high-profile media interviews and the launch of his own political movement “En Marche” (“On the Move”) have fuelled the speculation, and prompted fellow ministers to call him to order.
(Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron. AFP)
A torrid term
Hollande, 61, was elected in 2012 after ousting conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy. He has had a torrid term in office, with record unemployment and ever-increasing public anger over policies perceived as favouring business over workers.
His party has lost five major elections in a row, the far-right National Front has surged in popularity and every effort to institute reforms has run into massive street protests.
In March, Hollande was embarrassingly forced to back out of plans to amend the constitution to enshrine a state of emergency and other measures after the Paris attacks, due to fierce opposition from within his own party and without.
His government has also watered down controversial labour reforms — but this has failed to quell protests from citizens who fear workers' rights are being eroded.
Marliere noted that the only time Hollande saw his popularity rise was in the aftermath of major terror attacks in January and November 2015, both short lived bumps.
“There are a lot of things happening, and none of them are going his way — this launch had to be one way to show the public that he has got supporters,” he said.
“There have been one too many attempts to reform things in a way which is not favourable to ordinary workers — people who would normally vote for the Socialist Party.”
'Extreme political weakness'
Hollande has said he will decide at the end of the year whether to seek re-election, but a recent poll predicted he would be eliminated in the first round of the two-part contest.
According to Marliere, every French president since Charles de Gaulle has tried to get re-elected — with the exception of Georges Pompidou who died in office.
“It's a sign of extreme political weakness that less than a year from the election there are open debates over whether he can run again. Not whether he can win again… but can he run again.”
There have even been growing calls for a primary to vote for a candidate to represent the left and the greens.
Nevertheless, Hollande's supporters are convinced he is their man.
“I don't know anyone on the left who is as capable as Francois Hollande of uniting the left,” said Finance Minister Michel Sapin on Tuesday.
“What is strange, and a pity, is that often the first criticism of the government does not come from the opposition, but from part of the left which does not like the difficulty of being in power.”
by Fran Blandy