Hollande Snub Fuels Charm Offensive to Show He’s No Sarkozy

President Francois Hollande, the most-unpopular French leader in more than 30 years, is struggling to show supporters he’s not dipping into predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy’s playbook to reverse an economic slump.

The European debt crisis, which is in its fourth year, and France’s stagnating economy are preventing the Socialist president from veering too far from efforts advocated by Sarkozy and Germany’s Angela Merkel to cap the budget deficit, shrink government spending and push through structural changes.

“Often the line is very fine between the two but Hollande must maintain the idea that he is more left wing,” said Eric Bonnet, a political opinion analyst at BVA polling institute in Paris. “The big challenge for Hollande is to give his supporters the feeling that what he does is different from Sarkozy, to reassure them on his policies.”

That’s what the president is seeking to do as he started a two-day visit yesterday to Dijon, in the Burgundy region, the first of many he plans in rural France. Yet with unemployment at a 13-year high, a widened trade deficit, Europe’s second-largest economy on the brink of its third recession in four years and the need to raise an additional 5 billion euros ($6.5 billion) in spending cuts this year to keep shrinking the budget deficit, he’s constrained in the assurances he can provide.

His wings are clipped,” said Mathieu Plane, an economist at research institute OFCE in Paris. “As long as he must comply with very tough austerity measures, as long the economy is not expanding to give him some leeway on state measures, his margin for maneuver is minimal.”

Sarkozy Better

With no immediate hope for an economic recovery, Hollande’s program for 2013 is looking very similar to his predecessor’s, infuriating his political allies and supporters.

Hollande’s popularity fell in February, leaving him the most unpopular French leader since 1981, a TNS-Sofres poll showed. More than two-thirds of the French and 44 percent of those who voted for him in the second and decisive round of the May election say they’re disappointed with him, according to a BVA poll in Le Parisien on March 3.

Worse, a majority -- or 53 percent -- of the respondents in an Ifop survey for Paris Match magazine released today said they prefer Sarkozy over his successor. In July, 55 percent said Hollande was a better president.

The BVA survey showed that 54 percent of the respondents believe Hollande isn’t doing enough to change France and most said he won’t fulfill his promise to reverse the trend of rising unemployment by the end of the year or make enough reforms to stabilize the country.

‘Old Fuddy-Duddy’

Hollande’s soft and easy manner -- compared with Sarkozy’s relentless, frenzied activity -- have earned him the unflattering nickname of “Pepere,” or “Old Fuddy-Duddy,” in the French media.

Still, with the European Commission breathing down his neck on fiscal discipline, Hollande needs to make a series of unpopular overhauls, including reshaping the overextended pensions system, cutting public spending and pushing through more-flexible labor rules.

His pledge to cut the budget deficit to 3 percent of gross domestic product this year has already been ruled unattainable by the commission. His efforts are also aimed at sending reassuring messages across the Rhine to Chancellor Merkel who has pushed for austerity over Hollande’s electoral campaign promise of growth policies.

“The European factor -- the obligation to cut deficits and spending and make reforms -- is exactly what Sarkozy had to deal with,” OFCE’s Plane said. “It annuls all measures Hollande wants to impose to boost jobs and growth.”

Rural Roots

To appease an increasingly irritated population ahead of a late March television presentation of his strategy for rekindling growth and employment, Hollande launched this week a new agenda item: regular visits to “real France” with a sleepover in the nearest small town.

He completes today a two-day tour in and around the Burgundy wine and mustard-making town of Dijon. Shaking hands with politicians, shopkeepers, teenagers, taxpayers and wine makers, he’s turning to what he had neglected to do since his May election -- visits across France that were a Sarkozy trademark during his five-year term.

“Same visits, but Hollande has changed the method: he wants to show he is closer to the people, taking more time; that he is the real thing, like President Jacques Chirac,” BVA’s Bonnet said.

Not Welcome

Ahead of his Dijon visit, Hollande gave an interview to the local Le Bien Public newspaper, where he stressed his roots in rural France and his mandates as mayor of Tulle in Correze, France’s most remote region, unlike Sarkozy who’s from an upscale town on the outskirts of Paris.

Hollande has restated his promise to reverse the unemployment trend and chanted his three mantras ”constancy, endurance and hope.”

Still, the last five opinion surveys have been disastrous for the self-proclaimed “normal” president.

Hollande wasn’t always welcome during his Dijon trip, with bystanders in the unemployment-ridden neighborhood Les Gresilles asking him about his abandoned promise to make growth a priority and others demanding help on finding jobs.

In the Le Bien Public interview, Hollande detailed his measures, which are very similar to those promoted by Sarkozy.

While Sarkozy created a “sovereign investment fund” to invest in small- and medium-size companies, Hollande has started a “public investment bank” to grant them loans. Both work under the state-owned Caisse des Depots et Consignations.

Job Creation

Sarkozy’s pension reforms, lifting the retirement age to 62 from 60, were passed in spite of large protests and a tough face-to-face with unions. Hollande is negotiating with unions to pass his version of an overhaul to stabilize the system until 2030, with the pension program near-bankruptcy.

Both leaders have sought to boost competitiveness and innovation through tax breaks for companies. Both have used value-added taxes to bolster government receipts.

In January Hollande orchestrated an agreement between unions and business representatives to make the labor market more flexible. The measure is widely rejected by his far-left allies and his own supporters, BVA’s Bonnet said. Hollande has also unveiled measures to create youth jobs, with the unemployment rate for people below the age of 25 almost double the national rate of 10.6 percent.

“What really differentiates Hollande from Sarkozy are his measures to boost job creation,” OFCE’s Plane said. “There’s continuity in the economic policy between him and Sarkozy, but the requirements of exiting the crisis are foisting that on him. A return to economic expansion could make a difference.”