A poll taken at the end of November showed that a mere four per cent of the French electorate approved of François Hollande’s performance as President of the Republic – the lowest approval rating a President has ever received in over 150 years of French democracy. Swept to power on an Obama-esque “hope and change” platform in May 2012, what has gone so terribly wrong for a President who was unlikely to even win his own party’s nomination before he decided to call it quits himself – let alone the general election – when France votes again this May?
It all started off so well. Seventeen years of right-wing rule in France was brought to an end when the Parti socialiste (Socialist Party, PS) scored only their second presidential victory in history by ousting sitting President Nicolas Sarkozy with 51.6 per cent of the vote in the 2012 election. Boosted by left-wing majorities in both houses in the French Congress, Hollande looked to push through his campaign promises, namely a top-rate tax of 75 per cent, pulling French troops from Afghanistan, the lowering of the retirement age to 60 and the implementation of marriage equality. The former and the latter proved especially controversial, and he was forced to shelve his dreams of an even higher top tax rate due to opposition from across the political spectrum. Within a year, faced with rising unemployment, ever-more pessimistic views on the economy and an increasing number of businessmen and entrepreneurs (as well as famous film stars…) fleeing the country, his approval ratings had already slumped to fifteen per cent, and looked to be on an ever-further downward trajectory.
Compared to his predecessors, including Sarkozy and his two-term conservative predecessor President Jacques Chirac, Hollande evokes indifference and blandness in a country that is keen on political drama. He has recently managed to insult the country’s football team, fellow politicians and judges; although he has, at times, managed to appear presidential and encouraged unity following the Charlie Hébdo shootings and the Nice and Paris attacks over the last couple years, after which his approval ratings improved somewhat. However, many French people are unconvinced by his accomplishments or of his backbone, a President perceived as ineffective at home and weak on the international stage.
Domestically he has failed to deliver on a number of his key promises, which has alienated his left-wing base and provoked ridicule from the opposition conservatives. His party, France’s equivalent of the Labour Party, and therefore morally and historically the protector of unions; has pushed through controversial reforms aimed at curbing their vast power, leading to huge strikes and protests which continue to paralyze France and as a very visible sign of opposition to Hollande’s presidency.
On a world level, Hollande is neither widely respected nor highly regarded as a French President normally is. The Franco-German partnership, the pillar of post-war European foreign relations has remained cordial since he ascended to the Presidency; his left-wing outlook running counter to that of his right-wing counterpart in Berlin, especially regarding Greece, the euro, the migrant crisis and Brexit. Outgoing U.S. President Obama has looked to Germany and the UK as his main European allies, whose views align more closely with his own. Hollande has received Putin’s ire due to his support for sanctions against Moscow, too, and his intervention and mediation in the Middle East’s multiple conflicts has been almost non-existent. Despite leading a successful attack on Islamists and jihadists in France’s former colony of Mali, he has been perceived as weak on issues such as Yemen and Syria, another French ex-colony.
Thankfully, last month François himself seemed to realize all of this, and became the first President to not seek a second and constitutionally final term as President since the founding of the Sixth Republic over seven decades ago. His former Prime Minister and loyalist Manuel Valls, who has recently distanced himself from his boss, announced earlier in the week that he was seeking France’s highest office, and is the likely favourite to get the Socialists’ nomination when party members and supporters vote later this month. However, due to France’s two-round presidential election system, it’s unlikely a left-winger will even reach the last round, with polls showing the centre-right Les Républicans candidate François Fillon likely to go up against the far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen in the final showdown on May 7.
Although it’s very likely France will vote in Fillon as its next President – a run-of-the-mill French conservative – it would be unwise to bet against a populist, Eurosceptic candidate such as Le Pen winning France’s presidential election after the Brexit vote, Trump’s victory and Renzi’s recent referendum defeat in Italy, especially after gaining ground in France’s 2015 local and regional elections. After all, Marine Le Pen’s own father, Jean-Marie, made it through to the final round of the 2002 presidential election – and taking into account recent polls – it’s not inconceivable that his daughter will make it a round further and into the Élysée Palace come May 2017. Quelle horreur, non?