President falls back on fierce flag waving

By Catherine Field

Unpopular Hollande's Bastille Day interview will aim to show there is room for optimism

When Francois Hollande became France's leader, it was with the insistence that he was a man of the people, who despised patriotic pomp and shunned the splendours of the Elysee Palace and its use as a political prop.

On Sunday, yet another of Hollande's promises will fizzle out as he battles a slump that, after just 14 months in office, has made him one of the least-loved presidents in French history.

After overseeing the Bastille Day parade, where tricolores, tanks, marching troops and a military flypast will trumpet France's might, Hollande will be interviewed in the Elysee by national television - a dreary formula that, under his predecessors, combined forelock-tugging journalists, baroque decor and another dose of flags.

Playing the presidential card he once reviled may seem pitiful. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

Only 30 per cent of French voters believe Hollande is doing a good job, the lowest opinion-poll rating of any president at this stage in his tenure. "Can he hold out?" asked the headline this week in the news magazine Le Point.

The big public concern is unemployment, which Hollande had promised would fall by year's end. In May, 2.7 million people, a rise of 7.3 per cent over the past year, had no job.

France's debt has doubled in the last decade and this year is set to reach 4 per cent of GDP, ahead of the 3.7 per cent Hollande has targeted with tax increases and minor cuts in public spending, which now accounts for 56.6 per cent of GDP.

Then there is tax. A tweaking of the fiscal thresholds has prompted some of the very wealthy to flee and drawn some lower-paid workers, including widows on small pensions, into the tax net for the first time.

Philippe Doucet, an MP in the left-wing bloc of Hollande's Socialist Party, is furious at a 160 per cent increase in the tax on beer.

"Lesson No1 in politics is never to touch the price of beer," says Doucet. "Every time a waiter in a cafe pours out a glass, he'll say it's all the fault of the 'stupid Socialists' that beer has become so expensive ... The political price of unpopular measures like this completely outweighs anything the finance ministry may gain in tax."

Hollande owed much of his victory to his demands for integrity, after the financial sleaze that tainted his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.

But in February, the homely image was savaged when his budget minister, Jerome Cahuzac, admitted stashing millions in savings in foreign banks as he called on the public to pay their taxes.

The Cahuzac affair is widely cited by voters who have deserted Hollande's Socialist Party in favour of the xenophobic, populist far-right National Front (FN), whose message is that all the mainstream parties are corrupt.

If there's one gleam in Hollande's gloom, it is that Sarkozy is in an even greater mess.

Sarkozy, already under investigation for suspected underhand payments for his 2007 election campaign, is fighting to save his party from bankruptcy. The UMP, crippled by debts of €55 million ($90.8 million), has until the end of the month to repay €11 million after the Constitutional Court ruled Sarkozy's spending in last year's presidential campaign ineligible for reimbursement by the state.

Presidential aides know the Bastille Day TV bash will have to be credible. Hollande, say his friends, is a kindly and chummy character with a sharp sense of humour. But in public, he comes across as a well-intentioned but yawn-inducing civil servant.

"He knows that it's extremely tough for the public right now and people are worried," a source at the Elysee said. "The President wants to show that he is driven by relentless determination, and by doing that in the Elysee, the location of power and decision-making, makes sense." Optimism, competence, patriotism: the bullet points for Monsieur le President have all been laid out.

- NZ Herald

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