Region: French lose patience in slump
Voters increasingly frustrated with François Hollande's lack of strategy
Posted: March 20, 2013
A majority of French voters don't believe President François Hollande is doing enough to improve the nation's economic prospects, but the Socialist Party leader is hamstrung by his election promises, as well as his own party, from pursuing the sort of reforms that could revitalize the eurozone's second-biggest economy.
Since he took office 10 months ago, Hollande's approval rating has plummeted: from a 63 percent high in June of last year to between 30 percent and 37 percent according to recent TNS-Sofres and Ifop polls, respectively.
The president took to the countryside March 11 in an attempt to boost his popularity, touring provincial France to reconnect with "real" people, but a visit to Dijon, a left-wing electoral stronghold, turned out a public relations catastrophe.
German weekly Der Spiegel reported a young man demanding of the president, "Monsieur Hollande, where have your promises gone?" French newspaper Le Monde heard another resident saying, "We're still waiting for your change, François." It wasn't the reception Hollande's political advisers had hoped for.
Given the country's economic situation, French voters' dissatisfaction with the president is hardly surprising. Unemployment is at a 14-year high and still climbing, despite Hollande promising to reverse the curve before the end of this year. Youth unemployment stands at 25 percent.
The French economy shows almost no growth, forcing the government to postpone another promise it made: to reduce the deficit to under 3 percent of gross domestic product as required by the European fiscal treaty. The shortfall was expected to come in at 4.5 percent in 2012 and will be about 3.7 percent this year, Hollande said in Dijon.
The European Commission may give France another year to meet its treaty obligations, but only if it enacts more comprehensive reforms that would improve the country's competitiveness relative to other members of the single currency union. Even if Hollande were to embrace plans to that effect, however, lawmakers of his own left-wing coalition might block them.
France's lackluster growth stems in part from high labor costs. The average hourly labor cost of $43 compares with $36 in neighboring countries. But labor reforms, which could include a 40- instead of 35-hour working week, as is the norm in the rest of Europe, or lower social insurance contributions from employers, are anathema to Hollande's Socialists and their trade union allies.
French government spending accounts for more than half of annual economic output - far above the European average - and finances entire industries, including electricity, postal services and railways that the left does not want to privatize. Tax increases enacted last year have only made France less attractive to international businesses and investors, but deeper spending cuts are similarly unacceptable to Socialist Party legislators.
Yet it is not so much Hollande's leftist economic policy that disappoints voters, who are more concerned their country lacks a coherent economic policy overall.
Commentators who were previously willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt now complain he hasn't put forth a "vision" for France. A CSA survey conducted for Les Échos, a financial newspaper, found that 55 percent of French voters believe the government "doesn't know where it's going" on economic and fiscal policy. Hollande insists on "rigor" in public sector spending, but resists "austerity." He recognizes the need for fiscal consolidation but won't advocate further deficit reduction measures. French voters are left wondering what exactly he does intend to do.
Nick Ottens can be reached at
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