Hollande’s Struggle, Exemplified by Bastille Day

François Hollande. Photo: Flickr.com/jmayrault

François Hollande.
Photo: Flickr.com/jmayrault

Never in the history of the Fifth Republic had a French President been so low in the opinion polls. While more than 60 % of the French people had a positive opinion of the President when he was elected in May 2012, this number has not stopped decreasing since that month. Today, it has more or less stabilized around 25%, a number even Sarkozy — one of the most hated Presidents of all time — did not reach. François Hollande was even booed during the traditional Bastille Day parade during which the President congratulates the troops.

But why is the President so disliked? He took upon him to present himself as the exact opposite of President Sarkozy. Sarkozy was impulsive and authoritarian, Hollande is calm and takes care to listen and consult almost everybody. Sarkozy was divisive, Hollande wishes he was able to unite all tendencies. Sarkozy needed to act, Hollande seems to be able to step back and watch his policies being implemented. But has he gone too far the other way?

All of these features of Hollande’s presidency were exemplified during the Presidential interview that followed the Bastille Day parade. For 35 minutes he sat down and answered questions from two journalists — Claire Chazal from TF1 and Laurant Delahouse from public service channel France 2  — in the Elysée Palace garden, breaking the pledge he made during his 2012 presidential debate never to invite journalists to the Elysée.

The interview was an opportunity for Hollande to reiterate his agenda, explaining to the French people what they could expect for the future. But this particular interview was also a chance for Hollande to respond to the Bretigny station tragedy, a train derailment that killed six people. The President highlighted the dignity, solidarity, and fraternity of the people who helped rescue the victims, reaffirming the actions and the values they symbolize as the ones to celebrate on Bastille Day.

This speech on values appears to be very important to Hollande, as he always claimed his will to ‘cure’ French society of the divisiveness installed under Sarkozy. Moreover, national cohesion has long been a Presidential theme. But to the millions of people who do not particularly care about politics and are suffering from daily economic woes, the speech seems too abstract and removed from their daily needs. They care about the final product, the implementation of the policies, not the backstory.

In Bretigny, Hollande refused to admit that the older railways were out of date, even though he chose to redirect funds in the 2013 budget from the construction of new high-speed TGV lines in favor of the maintenance and modernization of these older lines. And herein lies another possible reason for Hollande’s dramatic drop in the opinion polls: as a moderate left-wing President, he chose to follow budgetary rigor and was forced to make a few dramatic cuts in the budget since May 2012. In doing that, he alienated the part of the Left that argues for state intervention and Keynesian policies. But he also did not satisfy the economic liberals who disagreed with his tax raises.

As a moderate, Hollande is indeed caught in the middle: between State interventionists and economic liberals, between social reformists and conservatives, between capital and labor. For example, his upcoming pension reform is likely to disappoint both sides: workers unions will criticize the rise of social security contributions necessary to balance the books, while liberals will moan about the unchanged retirement age at 60.

But most of all, it is maybe Hollande’s indestructible optimism that annoys the French people. The President seems to have almost a religious faith in his actions (self-labeled ‘tool box’) and is now waiting for the measures he passed during his first year to produce their full effects. In the Bastille Day interview, after being questioned about his strategy, the president’s response was humble but unsatisfying: “I fight. But politics are not magic.”

Condemning the widespread pessimism in the country, Hollande claimed he was optimistic, stating that “recovery is here,” despite being slow to come. He reminded the public that France is a great country and one that should fight to remain powerful through investment in future technologies. But Hollande’s optimism is not shared throughout French society and the theme of decline has been present in the country’s politics for years.

To dispel this fear, Hollande concluded the Bastille Day interview with a description of his vision for the country’s future. He rejected Marine Le Pen’s protectionist ideas, citing them as dangerous for a country that exports one third of its products. He added that he wished to move the country forward over the next ten years (a discreet way to announce his intention to seek a second term) in order to bring stability and solidarity back to the country.

Hollande’s optimism is certainly surprising and most likely irritating to many who continue to suffer in the economic crisis. However the president seems to have given himself a mission: revive France’s dedication to growth.  Despite the (depressing) polls that show the French public’s mistrust of Hollande and his government, the president still finds a way to believe in the work he is doing. Whether this is proof of his extraordinary will or his dangerous delusion, we will have to wait to see.

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  1. […] with our readers his opinion regarding Hollande’s Bastille Day speech. According to him, it perfectly exemplified Hollande’s struggle. We invite you to read and […]

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