Clouded vision: Hollande’s last chance

François Hollande has weathered the worst storm of his presidency so far, replacing his cabinet with more loyal ministers. But no recent French president has ever been so unpopular. Can he recover?

Sat, Aug 30, 2014, 01:00

François Hollande loves historic commemorations so much that he’s already made 25 speeches about the two World Wars. As his government collapsed last Monday Hollande couldn’t resist two more ceremonies to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Paris. They were long scheduled, and although the worst crisis of his presidency had just exploded, with three rebel cabinet ministers openly contesting his economic policies, Hollande saw no reason to change his schedule.

His prime minister, Manuel Valls, stayed in Paris to vet outgoing ministers for inclusion in the new government.

In Brittany, Hollande stood in pouring rain, water sluicing down his coat and into his shoes, fogging up his eyeglasses. On a trip to Morocco last year Hollande made a joke of a similar deluge. This time he delivered his speech stoically in the downpour while France wondered why its president doesn’t use an umbrella.

Arnaud Montebourg, the mischief-making economy minister with a long history of sniping at higher-ups, had sparked the crisis by criticising Hollande’s alleged austerity policies at a fete in Burgundy.

Montebourg, always a ham for the television cameras, brandished a bottle of wine called Cuvée du Redressement. “I’m going to send the president a case of renewal vintage,” Montebourg said, laughing, apparently playing on the possible sexual connotation of “redressement”.

It’s one thing to have economic policy publicly criticised by the man who is supposed to be responsible for it, quite another to have one’s virility questioned. Hollande and Valls were furious. An aide to Valls said he nonetheless had to persuade “Soft Caramel” (one of Hollande’s nicknames) to dissolve the entire government, which was replaced on Tuesday by a younger, more centrist and more loyal cabinet.

“This really is Hollande’s last chance,” says the political scientist Pascal Perrineau, of the prestigious Sciences Po university. “No president of the fifth republic has ever been so unpopular, with a 17 per cent approval rating. Protest in the president’s own party spread from parliament to the very heart of government, forcing him to react immediately, dramatically, with the government’s resignation.”

Drama out of a crisis

The crisis might have been resolved by sacking Montebourg. But “the prime minister pushed Hollande to dissolve the government, to dramatise what was at stake

and to show there’d be no more permanent conciliation,” Perrineau says. “Hollande’s character defect is that he tries so hard to reconcile opposites that his policies become incomprehensible. The prime minister wanted things to be clear.”

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