Published April 28, 2013
PARIS – The sounds of raucous protest echo in the Presidential Palace, unemployment is rising to levels not seen in over a decade, and his country's economy has been called a potential time bomb at the heart of Europe.
Francois Hollande, among the most unpopular French leaders in modern history, remains calm.
Lacking the early-career charisma of President Barack Obama or the hard-nosed reputation of Germany's Angela Merkel, Hollande rose to power in the Socialist Party as a consensus-builder — someone who went out of his way to avoid confrontation. But the amiability that propelled him to the presidency a year ago is turning against Hollande, as poll after poll finds deep disappointment among many who believe he is incapable of the swift, determined choices needed to yank France out of a malaise he himself says threatens generations to come.
"I remain solid and serene," Holland told a handful of journalists in his office at the Presidential Palace, above the shouts of a crowd demonstrating against his plan to legalize gay marriage. Without camouflaging the difficulties, he admitted it's been a trying year. "I grasp the seriousness — it's the task of the president to remain steady and to see further than the storms of a moment. It's called perseverance."
Judgment, he said in the interview earlier this month, will come only at the end of his five-year term.
But, seated comfortably in his office armchair, Hollande insisted he was anything but indecisive.
"My will is to pull the country together and restore its confidence. This will take time, but I have no other goal," he said. "You can criticize my decisions, think that I'm on the wrong path, say I'm foundering, but if there's one thing I'm sure of, it's that I've made major choices for France in the past year."
He cited the accord reached in January between unions and business leaders to relax some of France's famously strict labor protections. Hollande had championed the agreement, saying the costs and difficulties of hiring in France were hurting its ability to compete globally. But unemployment has only risen since then, and the brief optimism generated by the agreement — which is expected to become law by next month — has since faded. This week, it reached 10.6 percent, the highest level since 1999.
Hollande talks a lot about the French intervention in Mali, by far his most popular act in office. But, despite Hollande's best efforts, France was alone among European countries in sending soldiers, and French forces outnumbered any Africans sent to win Mali back from the militants who threatened to seize the entire country.
"I became president at an exceptional time," said Hollande, who tends to speak deliberately and formally even in relaxed settings. "Exceptional on the economic front: a long crisis, a recession in Europe, unemployment at historic levels. Exceptional because I was forced to engage France in Mali. Exceptional because populism is taking hold, not just in France, but throughout Europe."
Bernard Poignant, a Socialist who is Hollande's friend of 30 years and also one of his advisors, said the president started his term at a hugely difficult moment for his leftist base.
"Traditionally the left, when it comes to power, is generous, redistributive of wealth," he said. "Today, it's the reverse. The right emptied the coffers and now the left must fill them."
Economists say that France's predicament stems neither from the country's right or left, but from generations of benefits that few politicians are willing to take away. Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, only half-heartedly tried to raise the work week from 35 hours, then pulled back even before strong opposition emerged.
Hollande cautiously broached the idea of pulling back some of the subsidies that now go to all parents of young children, exempting families who earn high incomes. But the 35-hour work week remains in place, as does the retirement age of 62. Health care remains universal and nearly all treatments are reimbursed at least partially. Hollande has said he will not thin the ranks of government employees. France will remain among the countries with the highest percentage of public workers in the world — about 20 percent of the workforce gets a government paycheck and a government pension.
Hollande was elected as "president normal," an unassuming contrast to Sarkozy's flashy, aggressive style, and his dramatic divorce and marriage to the model and singer Carla Bruni. But a year into his term, his amiability has managed to turn most of the country against him, even within his own camp. Numerous Socialist lawmakers are openly speaking against him, for example, for demanding they publish their assets.
The president appears to relish simple, easy contact with the French. He can spend hours happily shaking hands, telling stories, joking. But those moments are becoming increasingly rare.
"He is consumed by his responsibilities, too consumed, in my opinion," said Poignant. "The political climate is such that the president is becoming the target of protests. We have to protect him for security reasons: It is very difficult for him to be close to the French."
Only about one in four French approve of the job Hollande is doing, lower than either of his conservative predecessors.
He says he is willing to wait for that to change, describing his five-year term in two phases: things will be very difficult in the first phase, then a return to growth and the Socialist preference toward more government spending. His advisors — and most economists — say privately they don't expect much good news for France before 2015.
"The French have always turned to the president. He is accountable to them, and that's as it should be. My actions are measured at this particular moment in our country's history," he said. "I remain in control of myself, confident in what I think."