Polls verdict dismal following Hollande’s prime time interview
Bad news for president as press slates performance and unclear plan for damage limitation
French president François Hollande during his prime time interview with journalist David Pujadas on Thursday. Photograph: Reuters/France 2
French president François Hollande made a valiant effort to convince the eight million French men and women who watched his 75-minute television interview on Thursday night, but he was defeated by the numbers.
There was the CSA-BFMTV poll, published hours before Mr Hollande’s first public reckoning since a press conference last November: only 22 per cent of French people say he is a good president. Fortunately, the president told viewers, he has “a thick skin and strong nerves”.
Bad news piled up in advance of the much-anticipated interview. The statistics institute Insee announced that France would see zero growth this semester, a continuation of last year’s economic stagnation. Unemployment rose for the 22nd consecutive month, and French purchasing power was found to have decreased in 2012 – for the first time since 1984 – because of tax hikes enacted by Mr Hollande.
Contradicting the hopeful picture painted by Mr Hollande on television, Insee reported yesterday that French debt reached 90.2 per cent of GDP last year. The public deficit stood at 4.8 per cent, instead of the 4.5 per cent predicted. Government spending rose 2.9 per cent, while Mr Hollande claimed to be reforming the state.
Mr Hollande still says he will “reverse the [rising] curve of unemployment” this year, but nothing in the statistics justifies his optimism. French media, left and right alike, were unanimous in criticising his television performance.
Libération and Le Monde newspapers faulted Mr Hollande for listing the technical measures he has created – government jobs; a lending bank for small companies; a draft law making it easier to lay off workers – without explaining why the crisis only worsens. Mr Hollande called these measures his “tool box”, prompting Le Figaro to label him “a mechanic” rather than the “architect” France needs.
Mr Hollande said France would save €2 billion on government supplies. He promised taxes would not rise further – with the exception of VAT, local taxes and social security contributions.
He promised not to touch France’s €31.4 billion defence budget, saying: “I am the head of state, the head of the armed forces. I have seen the quality of our military . . . I know what national independence means, because France is a great country.”
Green senator Jean-Vincent Placé asked: “Hollande says there won’t be new taxes, that the defence budget is sacred. So what are we going to save money on?”
Mr Hollande proposed a choc de simplification to help businesses assailed with some 3,000 government demands for information each year. A conservative deputy in the national assembly, Bruno Le Maire, tweeted: “I propose that @fhollande apply his shock of simplification to himself, so we can understand what he’s saying.”
For decades, every French government has promised to streamline government bureaucracy, but it never happens.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Mr Hollande won the far-left vote with the promise of a 75 per cent tax on incomes surpassing €1 million. That tax was scuppered by the constitutional council and council of state, so Mr Hollande recast the symbolic measure as a fee to be charged of companies that pay salaries of more than €1 million. The president did not say what would happen to millionaires who are not salaried executives.
It would be “absurd” for the government to tax the family allowances that have helped foster France’s high fertility rate – second only to Ireland’s in Europe – Mr Hollande said. But affluent families will henceforward receive smaller bonuses for having children.
Aside from these vestiges of his left-wing past, Mr Hollande confirmed his shift to the centre, saying: “I am now no longer a socialist president. I am the president of all French people. I am the president of France.”
Since French people lived longer, they would have to work more years before retiring, Mr Hollande said, adopting a right-wing argument.
Though he has stuck by his promise to legalise same-sex marriage, he said procreation through surrogate mothers would remain illegal. And that he would crack down on women wearing Islamic headscarfs.
Mr Hollande admitted to “friendly tension” in his relationship with German chancellor Angela Merkel. He has had to accept economic “rigour”, but “austerity” would “condemn Europe to [an] explosion” and “unpopular governments, which the populists will gobble up”.