Hollande in Search of a Strategy as Plans to Fix France Unravel

  • President dumps two key policies in a month as party rebels
  • Polls close to record low as Socialist base deserts Hollande

Francois Hollande just can’t seem to close a deal.

This week the French president abandoned a push for constitutional change that would have allowed judges to strip convicted terrorists of their nationality. Last month, it was the guts of his labor reforms that he ditched.

With those reversals, Hollande has dropped both pillars of the 2016 agenda he outlined in his New Year’s address, leaving him with no clear policy direction just over 12 months before the next election.

“The problem for Francois Hollande is that it was he himself who took these initiatives,” Jean-Daniel Levy, head of polling at Harris Interactive in Paris, said in an interview. “He has long given the impression of lacking vision. Now it looks like he simply lacks a strategy for running the country.”

‘Stripped of Authority’

As he casts about for a plan, Hollande, who attended a summit dinner at the White House Thursday night, is losing support from his base without winning over new voters.

The president’s personal popularity has plunged this year, with his Socialist Party revolting against both the citizenship policy and changes to labor law. Hollande’s approval rating fell 2 points to 18 percent in March, which compares with 32 percent in November, according to an Odoxa poll for L’Express and France Inter published Tuesday. An Ipsos poll published March 21 put his rating at 15 percent, close to a record low of 13 percent set in September 2014.

“This is one of the worse scores for Hollande since he came to office,” Ipsos analysts Brice Teinturier and Jean-Francois Doridot said in a note. “Above all it’s on the left that negative views of Hollande are growing, including from within his own Socialist Party.”

Le Figaro, a newspaper that has traditionally been more supportive of Hollande’s center-right rivals, put a photo of the president on its front page Thursday, with a headline reading “Stripped of Authority.”

Jobs Pledge

Worse, jobless claims are still rising. The number of people actively looking for work in France rose by 38,400, or 1.1 percent, in February to 3.59 million, the highest level ever. At 10.3 percent, the unemployment rate is about double that of the U.K. and Germany, making it a key source of discontent for French voters.

The jobs issue looms large for Hollande, who has repeatedly pledged not to seek re-election unless he manages to show a durable improvement in the numbers. His plan to overhaul the nation’s notoriously rigid labor code was key to that effort. 

French jobless claims rise to record

Yet with students taking to the street and all major labor unions and many Socialist lawmakers opposing new rules that would cap severance-pay requirements and ease firing, the government first delayed introduction of the bill and then watered it down. As a result, precious credibility with business has been squandered without any signs of enthusiasm being generated among the government’s natural supporters.

Wasted Effort

The gutting of the labor reform aside, unions hampered French rail and air traffic Thursday, while student groups protested in major cities across the nation.

“Having torn his party apart for nothing, Hollande has now given up on his symbolic but futile assertion of toughness,” said Arthur Goldhammer, an academic at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies.

If a general election were held now, Hollande wouldn’t make the second round, whether the opposition Republicans field former President Nicolas Sarkozy or former Prime Minister Alain Juppe as their candidate, according to an Ipsos-Sopra Steria poll published Wednesday. Instead, the incumbent would be eliminated, leaving the Republican candidate to face the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in the runoff.

“Hollande’s political capital is at its lowest level possible,” Yves-Marie Cann, a pollster at Elabe in Paris, said on Twitter.

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