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New French President Sees Popularity Crash

Just a few months ago, supporters rallied in the streets for the election of Francois Hollande. Now, some of the same people are protesting against the French president. Leftist parties and unions organized this anti-austerity protest in September.
Bertrand Langlois
AFP/Getty Images
Just a few months ago, supporters rallied in the streets for the election of Francois Hollande. Now, some of the same people are protesting against the French president. Leftist parties and unions organized this anti-austerity protest in September.

Just five months after electing President Francois Hollande, many French are now despairing that he cannot deliver on the vision they voted for. What's worse, some wonder if Hollande has a plan at all.

The new president's ratings have plummeted, and his once-lauded "steady approach" is now perceived as dithering.

Protesters shouting "Resistance!" in the streets of Paris this month included people who voted for him and now feel betrayed. They were demonstrating against the European fiscal treaty, approved this week by the Socialist-dominated French parliament.

On the campaign trail, Hollande promised to renegotiate the austerity treaty to add a growth component. Protesters here say he didn't change one comma of it.

Hollande insists the country must cut spending and reduce its deficit. Those are the same goals as the unpopular president they voted out of office, says 18-year-old Virgil LeBlanc.

"The French voted just a few months ago to change the direction the country was heading," he says. "But our efforts were obviously pointless because Hollande is pushing the country toward austerity just like Nicolas Sarkozy."

The headline of a leading news magazine, L'Express, reads: "Look Who's Been Cuckolded By Hollande."

First among them, it says, are civil servants. One of Hollande's main campaign promises was to hire tens of thousands of new teachers and police officers.

What he didn't say was that he would shrink the size of other ministries to do so. Granted, keeping campaign promises in the middle of a Europe-wide recession and debt crisis was never going to be easy.

Anger On The Left

French steel workers welded themselves inside a plant slated to be closed, and auto unions set off fireworks as they tried to storm the Paris Motor Show this week.

Peugeot Citroen worker Alain Blazzard says it's outrageous that the company plans to close a major plant and lay off 8,000 workers, and that Hollande is doing nothing about it.

"Peugeot decided to pay out 6 billion euros in dividends to stockholders over the last decade instead of investing in new markets to develop the company. And now we, the ones who actually make the cars, are paying for it," Blazzard says.

The anger against Hollande is not just over the economy. Ecologists are furious after a member of his government called nuclear power an industry of the future, contrary to Hollande's campaign promise to reduce it. And Hollande has taken flack for his inaction on the world stage.

Even flamboyant leftist philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy has piled on. After helping to convince Sarkozy to bomb Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, Levy says he's deeply disappointed that Hollande has done nothing about Syria's President Bashar Assad.

In just five months, Hollande's approval ratings have dropped from 61 percent to 40 percent — a record plunge for a first-term president. And a poll out this week shows that more French people would rather see Sarkozy back in office.

Jumping Through Hoops

It's not just voters on the far left who are disappointed by Hollande. The cafe scene in the Bastille neighborhood of Paris is a favorite hangout of well-heeled Socialists, known as "Gauche Caviar."

These upper-middle-class supporters of Hollande aren't thrilled to see their taxes going up, but it's more a feeling that nothing is happening, says consultant Monique Desgouttes.

"Hollande's big mistake was to cast himself as the opposite of Nicolas Sarkozy in every way. Because now people are saying he doesn't even have a plan and it was better before when there was at least energy and action," Desgouttes says.

Hollande's slogan — a "normal president" — was once a positive that placed him in contrast with the frenzied Sarkozy. Now it has become a badge of mediocrity. But Desgouttes believes the French need to give Hollande more time to prove himself.

After all, she says, running a country is not some sort of theatrical show. And a president shouldn't have to do a trapeze act every day to prove himself.

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Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
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