04 May 2013

Francois Hollande's First Anniversary

France is not doing well.

And François Hollande is not doing well at all. His popularity rating is hovering around 25 percent, an all time low.

Former president Sarkozy's pop star wife Carla Bruni has recently written a song entitled le Pingouin (the penguin  making fun of him for being indecisive (Mr Neither yes nor no is his nickname) and for being utterly ordinary:
'Neither ugly, nor beautiful, neither tall nor short, neither cold nor hot, the penguin, neither yes nor no.
(For the actual French lyrics, click here)

"The Penguin"

After Nicolas Sarkozy, who was dubbed the "bling-bling president" for his high-roller friends, his glamorous wife and his appetite for the good life, Hollande is quite simply boring. He is known as Mr. Ordinary. Coloring his hair is about the only vain thing about him and even there he seems to be relying on a supermarket jar rather than the elaborate efforts of a high end coiffeur.

"The Penguin" and "the Rottweiler"
But Mr. Ordinary's presidency is not going smoothly and it is certainly not as low key as his appearance. Early on, he had a minor scandal caused by his girl friend Valerie Trierweiler. She tweeted her support for the candidate running against Hollande's former partner and the mother of his three children, Segolene Royale. Royale lost the election and Hollande looked well, weak. Most people thought he should have stopped her.

In the highly macho culture of France, having an affair is nothing but having an outspoken female partner could be a major problem.

She was quickly dubbed the Rottweiler and the tabloid press began to publish many colorful inside stories about how bossy and difficult she was.

Then, as he was vacillating about various tax positions (and being put on the defensive by Gerard Depardieu's very public departure), a major scandal erupted. This time it was his budget minister Jerome Cahuzac (a former plastic surgeon) who confessed to having a Swiss bank account with 600,000 euro in it. The bad part is that his confession came after months of very public denials (think about several highly rated "I never had sex with that woman" TV moments). And when he eventually admitted his wrongdoing, his vociferous denials made whole thing doubly damaging for Hollande and his government. It looked like a good example of elite hypocrisy: while they were arguing for the need to increase taxes, they were placing their own money away from the state's grubby little hands. And this was his budget minister.

As unemployment rose (it did for 23 straight months to reach an all time high in March) and the economic figures got worsened, Hollande opted to focus on gay marriage. While the majority of the electorate support the notion (and it was a campaign pledge of his), the opposition sensed that this was a perfect issue to launch an attack against him. Led by the Catholic church (which is becoming a significant force in France, as religion is reclaiming its pre-modernity position all over the world), opposition parties managed to organize several unexpectedly large rallies and challenged him openly. Since he had the votes, the law was passed by the Assemblée Nationale but it felt less of a victory and more of an unnecessarily bruising fight.

Hollande tried to salvage this situation by going after the Jihadis in Mali. French forces swept the country quickly and that led to a brief moment of national pride (maybe even some colonial nostalgia). But given the woeful economic situation, people rapidly began to question the wisdom of undertaking costly military campaigns in Africa.

Mali notwithstanding, French foreign policy seemed to be in disarray. The most damaging was a perceived loss of voice  in European affairs. As the largest and the second largest economies of the EU, Germany and France had always dominated the European debate. People thought that Franco-German alliance was the backbone of the Union. Most of the EU institutions were created after the French model and France has always been a very important player in them. Apparently, not anymore:
"You can see a shrinking presence, a progressive disappearance of France on most issues that concern the economic agenda," said Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy, a Brussels think tank. 
European diplomats from a range of member states, speaking on condition of anonymity, are more blunt. 
"You don't hear France's voice at all. They are nowhere, just nowhere," said a senior European diplomat who is in frequent contact with other member states.
Given Sarkozy's high profile presence with Angela Merkel (she openly supported him for his reelection bid), this shrinking presence is directly attributed to Hollande's ineptitude.

Besides dismal foreign policy, the economic picture is also getting darker with each passing month. Yesterday, the European Union released a new report. It indicated that France is going to slide into recession this year and the next and unemployment will continue to rise through 2014. Since France is supposed to meet the EU budget requirements (reducing deficit to within 3 percent of output) in 2014, it is not possible for Hollande to undertake vigorous stimulus spending. French debt is too high and there is no willingness to move funds from one spending area to another. (Despite contradictory announcements he only froze the defense budget but did not actually reduce it).

In short, the year ahead looks rather grim for Francois Hollande. To put salt to his wounds, his nemesis Nicolas Sarkozy is now very popular in opinion polls and  if elections were held today, he would handily trounce Hollande.

Given that overall somber picture, I was not surprised to see social media rumors about Hollande having an affair with Julie Gayet, a wistful looking 40 year old actress who had some modest fame in the 90s.

What better way to brush up your ordinary image than getting social media make lurid allegation about your virility? Forget about being indecisive. Forget being controlled by a domineering girl friend. He was seen outside her apartment. Forget the penguin, the man is a hound dog!

I had many French friends telling me that they heard it from very well placed sources that the affair was for real. Sure, I said. French people maintain their innocence when it comes to PR coups and viral marketing campaigns through social media. I am a tad more cynical. Maybe there is something to the rumors, maybe there is not. But it is almost certain that the idea of an affair was made public for a PR reason.

And it worked somewhat. After an initial reaction of "how does he find the time?" and "where is Valerie?" these rumors seems to have given him some boost in the public's esteem. I don't think it will last but it might somewhat alter his image of an ineffectual penguin.

Only in France can a politician hope to recover lost ground by starting rumors about an illicit liaison.

Vive la France, indeed.

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