Hollande asks voters to give him time as his popularity plummets

By John Lichfield

President Francois Hollande, facing an unprecedented meltdown in his popularity, yesterday criticised the impatience of French voters but promised his softly-softly approach would triumph in the end.

In an interview with Le Monde almost six months after his election, Hollande insisted he had not been shocked by his precipitous fall in the polls. "There is no indulgence and no respect. But I knew that already".

In a survey by market researchers Sofres to be published today, Hollande's approval rating sinks to 37 per cent, compared to 62 per cent just after his May election - the steepest drop in popularity of any newly-elected head of state in 50 years.

Pollsters say the collapse is driven by a belief - on the right and part of the left - that Hollande has adopted too plodding an approach to France's worst economic crisis since the war. The right is also furious at possible tax rises and the left is angry at deficit cutting in the face of zero growth and 10 per cent unemployment.

Promising a more hands-on approach, Hollande reminded voters they had detested predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy's confrontational and divisive attitude to social and economic reform. "I believe, the changes we need have to be led by the left, through negotiation, with fairness and without injuring or insulting the weakest," he said.

Exactly what economic reforms Hollande plans remains unclear. A report he commissioned on how to restore France's international compet-itiveness has been largely shelved because it offended the left, attacking the 35-hour working week and the high payroll taxes which fund health and other social policies.

But Berlin is nervous that despite Hollande's commitment to deficit cutting, the slow pace of reform could provoke a new eurozone crisis.

- Independent