Hollande’s ‘annus horribilis’: ratings at record low after first year in office

No president of the fifth republic has been so unpopular after one year in role

Fri, May 3, 2013, 05:36

Exactly one year ago next Monday, newly elected French president François Hollande made his victory lap up the Champs-Élysées, standing in an open car. Rain sluiced down his suit. His glasses fogged up so badly that he couldn’t see the crowds he greeted. When his flight took off that night for dinner with German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, it was struck by lightening. Some considered it an ill omen.

At the end of what Le Monde calls Hollande’s first “terrible year” in office, everything, even the weather, seems to have conspired against him. After an interminably cold and damp winter, the French leader made a state visit to Morocco last month. “I arrive. It rains. I’m keeping up the tradition,” Hollande joked.

Citing the adage that “to govern is to foresee”, he played on the verbs “ prévoir ” (to foresee) and “ pleuvoir ” (to rain). “To govern is to rain,” he said. “And from that point of view, we are succeeding beyond all hope.”

These days, it’s rare to hear praise for Hollande’s sense of humour. In the second week of April, the covers of leading French news magazines showed how badly his image had deteriorated. “ Monsieur Faible ” (Mr Weak) was the title of L’Express , over a photograph of Hollande on the steps of the Élysée Palace with a bowed head. “Is Grandad up to the job?” asked Le Point .

In the 55 years of France’s fifth republic, Hollande’s fall from grace is unprecedented. “From 1958 until today, no president has been so severely sanctioned after one year in office,” says Pascal Perrineau, one of France’s leading political scientists and the director of the Cevipof think tank.

According to a TNS Sofres poll conducted for Le Figaro magazine, only 24 per cent of the French trust Hollande to solve the country’s problems, a 3 point drop since last month. French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault fares worse, at 23 per cent. “Jacques Chirac took 10 years to reach such depths of unpopularity,” notes Perrineau. “François Hollande did it in one year.”

A lack of government experience is one possible explanation. Neither Hollande nor Ayrault had served as a government minister. Hollande wanted to renew French politics by promoting young socialists. Only five of his 37 ministers have ministerial experience.

Perrineau outlines the stages of Hollande’s concentric circles of political hell. In the autumn of 2011, polls showed Hollande defeating then president Nicolas Sarkozy by 60 per cent to 40 per cent. By election day, that margin had evaporated. Hollande won only 51.63 per cent of ballots cast.

The French public quickly grew disenchanted with “Monsieur Normal”. He had promised not to mix private and public life, but his companion, Valérie Trierweiler, insulted Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s previous partner, in a tweet during the legislative campaign that followed. When Hollande took the train rather than fly, it was derided as demagoguery. By August, he had dipped below the 50 per cent line.

With the September rentrée , the government seemed trapped in endless quarrels between the ministers of the interior and justice, finance and industry. “Neither the president nor the prime minister called them to order,” recalls Perrineau. “The French started asking if there was a pilot in the plane. By October, his popularity was below 40 per cent.”

Based on a report by business executive Louis Gallois, Hollande announced a business-friendly “competitiveness pact” in October. The left of the French left considered it a gift to the rich and accused him of betraying his promises. His popularity dropped to 35 per cent.

In winter, with debt and unemployment exploding, Hollande was forced to start fudging his economic goals.

The draft law on same-sex marriage and adoption by homosexual couples mobilised hundreds of thousands of conservative protesters; visual proof of Hollande’s unpopularity.

The Jérôme Cahuzac affair, in which Hollande’s minister for the budget, the man responsible for chasing tax cheats, was found to have stashed hundreds of thousands of euro in offshore accounts to evade tax, was “the coup de grâce”, says Perrineau. Hollande had often played up the morality of French socialism; the Cahuzac affair struck at its very heart. La rigueur was for the people; not for cabinet ministers. If Hollande knew about Cahuzac’s accounts, he was guilty of duplicity. If not, he was an amateur, the French concluded.

Now predictions by international economic forecasters are universally gloomy, and the socialists look certain to take a beating in next year’s municipal elections.

Jacques Chirac tried the institutional ploys of dissolving the national assembly, and later a referendum, with disastrous results. So a cabinet reshuffle is the only option left to Hollande – probably in September if things go badly, next March if he can hang on that long. But a reshuffle is a one-shot strategy. The next four years will be difficult. Hollande could almost say, like Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”