After his government scraped through a confidence vote in parliament this week, France’s Socialist President Francois Hollande faces a bigger challenge ahead: convincing a disenchanted public and his own bickering party that he can lead the country for the rest of his five-year mandate.
The battle is far from won. More than two years into Hollande’s presidency, France’s economy has stalled, unemployment has skyrocketed, and his already record-low popularity ratings recently sunk to an even lower 13 percent. Even his private reputation is in tatters after his former partner, Valerie Trierweiler, wrote a tell-all book claiming – which the President denies – that he mocks the poor as the “toothless ones.”
On Thursday, Hollande offered a pugnacious defense of his policies, announcing tax cuts and other benefits for the working class and suggesting his efforts to reboot the economy would deliver long-term paybacks – although possibly not until 2017, when his term in office ends.
“I’m aware that… our society has become defiant about political power, and even about the future. It’s driven by unemployment, doubt, uncertainty, a feeling of abandonment,” Hollande said, acknowledging the grim climate.
“I am in the middle of my mandate,” he added. ” My duty is… to act, so that all useful reforms are carried out, so that France succeeds.”
‘A very new situation’
It’s unclear whether Hollande’s latest offensive can turn around a skeptical public. An IFOP poll released earlier this month found that more 80 percent of France doesn’t want him to seek a second term.
“Hollande has made so many mistakes – personal mistakes, political mistakes – that he has lost all credibility,” said Philippe Moreau Defarges, an analyst at the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations (IFRI). “It’s a very new situation for France, it has never happened under the Fifth Republic. As for himself, it’s quite impossible for him to recover.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Hollande attacked with his foreign policy Thursday, one of the few areas where he is scoring points. Days after hosting an international conference on Iraq, he announced
Paris would soon carry out airstrikes against “Islamic State” targets at the request of the Iraqi government.
The conference was successful in forging a unified front against IS terror in Iraq and Syria
He also called for closer cooperation with Germany on areas like energy and European integration, while rejecting a lockstep march on tough fiscal measures. He called for greater flexibility on European Union deficit caps to meet job and growth targets.
“France is not asking for special treatment,” Hollande said, adding the government plans to sharply cut its spending.
Enter the rival
But citizens like 61-year-old Zulika Ben Brahim, are waiting for results. “I voted for Hollande. I really thought he was going to change things, and he hasn’t,” she said. “Things must change – either with Hollande or without him.”
Trierweiler’s book sparked a debate about whether tell-alls should be published while a president is in office
Hollande faces a new challenge on Friday, when the Moody’s rating agency may downgrade France’s sovereign debt rating. Another might come later this week, when a top political rival, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, is expected to announce his political comeback.
The French President also faces dissent from within. He lost three ministers in a government shakeup last month, after his former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg openly criticized his policies. Another minister was sacked in early September for failing to pay his taxes.
Perhaps one of Hollande’s biggest rivals, observers say, might be his own prime minister. After his government narrowly survived a confidence vote in the French National Assembly, 52-year-old Manuel Valls appeared to one-up the President by announcing likely tax cuts a day before Hollande’s press conference.
Valls has only one goal: He wants to be president of the Republic,” analyst Moreau Defarges says. “And now the battle between Mr. Holland and Mr. Valls is beginning.”
Meanwhile, Hollande’s own battle to assert his presidency carries on. Calls have been growing, especially on the Internet, for his resignation – an unlikely but not impossible scenario, Defarges says.
“Some months ago, we could not imagine a pope stepping down,” he says. “So why not a French president?”