Hollande Lives Up to Pudding Moniker as His Authority Questioned

French President Francois Hollande’s nickname after a popular pudding is beginning to look like more than the stuff of satire.

A year and a half into his presidency, Hollande’s authority has been undermined by flip-flops on issues from immigration to taxes. This week’s decision to suspend a truck levy in the face of protests prompted headlines of “Government Runs Out of Steam” in Le Parisien and “Can He Still Govern?” in Le Monde.

The truck-tax reversal came two days after Hollande abandoned a budget measure to increase taxes on savings and a week after he tried to backpedal over the deportation of a 15-year-old Kosovar girl. The U-turns lend substance to Hollande’s image for being soft and wobbly as he tries to please all -- one that earned him the moniker ‘Flanby,’ after a Nestle dessert brand, long before he became president.

“Hollande’s problem is that his credibility has been dented,” said Emmanuel Riviere, a pollster at TNS Sofres in Paris. “Now, even if his economic strategy produces results, he may not be given credit.”

The Socialist president’s popularity has extended a decline that was already the steepest for a French president. A BVA poll published two days ago showed Hollande’s approval rating dropping six points in the past month to 26 percent, the lowest level under France’s current constitution. Eighty-four percent of voters say Hollande’s leadership is ineffective.

The setbacks may undermine Hollande’s ability to press ahead with fixing France’s stalled economy, which is showing signs of a nascent recovery after more than two years of close to no growth.

Divisive Issue

Among the about-faces, the expulsion of Leonarda Dibrani, whose family was living illegally in France, was among the most divisive, creating splits in Hollande’s own party.

The issue caught public attention when police took custody of the Roma girl while on a school trip and deported her, with her family, to Kosovo. Thousands of students demonstrated in protest. Hollande sought to quell public criticism by inviting her to return -- without her family.

Hollande said in a television appearance on Oct. 19 that no law or rights had been violated while also criticizing the police for showing “lack of judgment” when they picked up a girl during a school outing. Socialist lawmakers said he spoke out too late and too timidly, while the girl herself refused an offer to return to France without her family.

“The debate on immigration once again gave the impression of a lack of preparation,” said Bruno Jeanbart, a pollster at OpinionWay in Paris. “Now Hollande is facing a debate on his competence.”

Taxing Retreats

Similarly, the decision to suspend the truck tax, originally part of the environment policy put in place by former President Nicolas Sarkozy, drew criticism from the government’s ecology allies, laying bare fissures. Senator Jean-Vincent Place from the Greens Party warned that dropping the tax would show Hollande “no longer had authority over anything.” The tax was suspended after farmers in Brittany protested against it.

“The presidential majority has publicly displayed its internal divisions on numerous occasions in recent weeks,” said Bruno Cavalier, an economist at Oddo Equities in Paris. “The president’s authority has generally been deemed diminished by this division. Criticism is raining down from all sides.”

To be sure, some Socialists have rallied to Hollande’s cause. Bruno Le Roux, head of the party in the National Assembly, said Hollande has managed to push through changes to labor laws, schools and pensions that the country needs.

‘Little Things’

The controversies need to be looked at against the backdrop of “everything we’ve done to reform this country,” Le Roux said yesterday on France Info radio.

This week’s controversies are “about little things” and I say “Hold firm Mr. President, with what we’ve been doing for the past year-and-a-half, we have every reason to hold our heads high.”

Getting that message across at a time when the French population is coping with taxes that have risen by 70 billion euros over three years and unemployment at a 14-year high still represents a major challenge for Hollande and his party.

Tax, in particular, is a growing source of dissatisfaction in a country where the government collects more than 46 percent of gross domestic product to keep itself functioning. In 2011, when the portion was 2 points lower, France was already the third-highest taxed country in the world behind Belgium and Denmark, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Soccer Clubs

Hollande meets today with representatives of France’s soccer clubs who are threatening to strike during the last week in November in protest against a 75 percent tax on earnings of more than 1 million euros ($1.38 million).

“Behind the problem of taxation you practically have a civil war,” said Laurent Dubois, a professor at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. “The French have the impression that they pay, pay, pay; that unemployment climbs, climbs and the rich are getting away.”

For Mathieu Doiret of the Ipsos polling company, Hollande’s situation is comparable to that of U.S. President Jimmy Carter before he was ejected from office in 1980 or British Prime Minister James Callaghan about a year earlier.

“Like Carter and Callaghan, Hollande isn’t a very strong personality,” Doiret said. “And like them, Hollande is coping with a situation where the state of his country’s economy and morale have hit bottom.”

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