François Hollande struggles in ‘last chance’ television interview

Street protests continue outside venue of French president’s two-hour appearance

 French president François Hollande  visits a factory in Venette on Friday. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty

French president François Hollande visits a factory in Venette on Friday. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty

 

CRS riot police pushed back demonstrators outside the Musée de l’Homme, where President François Hollande engaged in what was widely billed as his “last chance” to win back the French public in a two-hour television interview on Thursday night. 

“Let’s go!  Let’s go!  To the Élysée!” protesters chanted when the “Nuit debout” movement gathered earlier on the Place de la République, as it has done daily since March 31st.

While Mr Hollande insisted on television that “France is getting better” black-clad hooligans damaged 15 cars, two shops, an unemployment office, a customs depot, the Jaguar car showroom, a branch of the Société Générale and an Ibis hotel.  Similar violence occurred in Nantes, Montpellier, Toulouse and Rennes.

Opinion polls show that eight in 10 French people do not want Mr Hollande to stand for re-election next year, but he insists he will “keep reforming every day I’m in office” and decide in December whether to stand.  That complicates plans by his Socialist party to hold a primary in the autumn, a stunning disavowal of the sitting president. 

Television ratings show half a million people zap to another channel when Mr Hollande appears on their screens.  Fewer than 3.5 million people tuned in to the interview, in which the president was challenged by journalists and four French people:  a struggling businesswoman;  a bus driver from the Calais region who switched from the Socialists to the extreme right-wing National Front;   the mother of a French Muslim convert who died in the ranks of Islamic State, and a 22-year-old.

Appearances by an angry trade unionist and a farmer were cancelled, reportedly at the insistence of the Élysée.

Mr Hollande stood by his record, endlessly enumerating measures his government has taken:  an “activity bonus” for jobless people who accept employment;  universal medical coverage;  a “youth guarantee”;  student scholarships that keep paying after the academic year is over;  tens of billions of euro in tax credits for employers; and an end to social charges on minimum wage earners.

“So everything is okay?” a journalist asked. 

“No.  It’s getting better, which isn’t the same thing,” Mr Hollande replied. 

Eighty-seven per cent of respondents to a BFM TV poll deemed the president’s record in office to be negative.

Some 700,000 people have lost their jobs since he took office.  The El Khomri law was meant to reform the labour market, but Mr Hollande is so fearful of France’s feverish, revolutionary mood that he’s gutted the law of its substance.

A technocrat, Mr Hollande knows every detail of every law passed by his administration.  Yet the businesswoman despaired of making him understand why she cannot hire more employees.  He had no answer for the National Front voter’s fears about immigration.  Nor could he explain to the dead Muslim convert’s mother why France cannot stop Islamic State recruiters. 

The president called prime minister Manuel Valls and economy minister Emmanuel Macron – his would-be successors on the centre-left –to order.  He denounced Mr Valls’s call for a ban on Muslim headscarves in universities.  (Headscarves are already banned in schools.) Mr Macron, who on April 6th launched his own political movement, appeared with his wife on the cover of Paris Match on the day of Mr Hollande’s TV interview. 

“He must be on the team, under my authority,” Mr Hollande said. 

During his 2012 campaign, Mr Hollande said he wanted “to be judged on one goal only . . . will young people live better in 2017 than in 2012?”But young people are worse off, said the 22 year-old who confronted him on TV on Thursday.  Youth unemployment is at 25.9 per cent, six points above the European average. 

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