PARIS — Satirists and critics call him “Flanby,” after an oft-derided French custard treat that’s wobbly, soft and faintly ridiculous.
But the real problem for President Francois Hollande is this: Even flanby (the dessert) is probably more popular than he is.
After winning election in May 2012 promising to be a new kind of leader, the mild-mannered Hollande now finds himself saddled with the lowest approval ratings of any French president since the establishment of the Fifth Republic 55 years ago.
Weighed down by a feeble economy, record unemployment, damaging scandals, a divisive battle over same-sex marriage and an inconsistent political message, Hollande has alienated even many of his natural supporters. Despite enjoying a strong legislative majority, France’s first Socialist president since 1995 has had trouble enacting many of his campaign pledges, and the policies he has managed to push through have satisfied neither left nor right.
Some pundits are already predicting that Hollande, 58, will wind up a one-term president, even though he’s barely a year into his presidency and has four more to go, an eternity in politics.
“Usually the honeymoon lasts longer,” said Matthew Fraser, a political expert at Sciences Po university in Paris. “The general perception is that he’s weak, he’s indecisive, he’s not a real leader. And that has undermined his popularity.”
The fall from grace has been particularly spectacular given the euphoria that greeted Hollande’s election victory by those who were tired of the “hyper-presidency” of his flashy conservative predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. A sizable chunk of Europe was rooting for Hollande, too, hoping he would lead resistance against Germany and its insistence on unremitting austerity as the cure for Europe’s economic ills.
But that sort of strong counteroffensive has yet to materialize. Indeed, some European Union officials have begun chiding France for its dismal economic performance — the country has slipped into a triple-dip recession — and for the slow pace of reforms to liberalize its economy and curb social spending. Hollande has responded testily, suggesting that Brussels mind its own business.
“The European Commission cannot dictate to us what we have to do,” he told an interviewer recently.
Even his critics, though, acknowledge that, in many ways, Hollande inherited a poisoned chalice.
The French economy was already flailing by the time he took office, amid the wider and then-raging euro debt crisis. Even the business-friendly Sarkozy had been unable to deliver on reforms considered necessary to make France more competitive, and public debt was rising, fueled in large part by the government’s long-generous social welfare programs.
Hollande’s defenders point to his success in passing a significant labor-reform package last month that will make it easier for employers to fire workers and for employees to get new jobs elsewhere. The leaders of some of France’s notoriously militant unions have reluctantly agreed to the changes.
Hollande also led the drive to beat back Islamic fundamentalists in Mali, committing troops to help secure and stabilize the former French colony. When he made a triumphant visit to the historic city of Timbuktu in February, he described it as “the most important day of my political life.”
But such achievements have been obscured by a host of missteps and contradictory signals that have disenchanted many of his supporters and hardened the opposition of his foes.
A controversial 75% tax rate on income above $1.3 million, a centerpiece of his campaign, was struck down by a court before being retooled. Young Internet entrepreneurs calling themselves les pigeons — slang meaning “chumps” — mounted an angry online protest that forced Hollande to backtrack and scrap a new business tax.
The unemployment rate, now above 10%, continues to rise; factories continue to close. A feeling of decline, or at least deep uncertainty, has gripped many here in the Eurozone’s second-largest economy.
On the one hand, Hollande criticizes austerity; on the other, his government has pledged to cut tens of billions of dollars from its budget over the next few years and hinted that people will have to work harder and longer before they retire. Officials announced this week that public spending would shrink next year for the first time since 1958.
And in a major blow, one of Hollande’s ministers, who had stoutly denied holding a secret Swiss bank account, finally admitted lying about it and resigned. The scandal was especially damaging for a president who had billed himself as “Mr. Normal” and who had promised to run a clean, effective, down-to-earth administration. Instead, the government is perceived as undisciplined and rife with cronyism.
“What’s the point of saying you’re Mr. Normal … if in the end you have almost the same amount of dysfunction?” said Philippe Marliere, a professor of French and European politics at University College London. “The French media and people see it as the same old [thing] in the end. That’s the reason why Mr. Normal doesn’t wash anymore.”
Moreover, in a country where style in politics counts almost as much as substance, Hollande is mocked for seeming unpresidential and inept at communicating.
Although many of his compatriots found his modest persona on the stump appealing, the French also like to see a strong, solemn, lordly president whose bearing matches the sweeping, near-monarchical powers invested in his office, which exceed those of the American president. Hollande, however, can come off as nerdish and almost goofy, critics say, and his television appearances have gone over poorly.
“The problem with Hollande in the French imagination is that he seems more like a senior bureaucrat or a mayor of a city than a president,” said Fraser. “He doesn’t look the role; he doesn’t talk the role…. Everyone’s baffled by his style.”
His greatest advantage may be the four years left in his term, during which the economy could pick up, more reforms might be under his belt and he would have new opportunities to refashion his image.
But Marliere, the politics professor, said that the damage may prove impossible to undo, even at as early a stage as this in Hollande’s presidency.
“I don’t think he can recover,” Marliere said. “He’ll finish his five years as extremely weak…. It will take a political miracle for Hollande to be in a strong position if he chooses to run again.”