Hollande and the art of pushing one’s luck



21, Oct 2016

French president Francois Hollande had been able to sustain some loyalists by his optimism and some good fortune. But with the release of a book – a collection of 60 interviews he gave over five years – it seems to be the last of several last straws for him. His freewheeling criticism of just about everyone else has been ill-received by the public and by his own party members.

What is ‘A President Should Not Say That’ about?

  • It is a collection of 60 interviews with France’s President Francois Hollande conducted over 5 years by two journalists from the Le Monde newspaper.
  • The 660-page book’s publication has resulted in a lot of backlash against the President among people and even some party members.
  • Hollande has made statements against Islam, immigration, footballers, the justice system, his ex-girl friend Valerie Trierweiler and political opponent and ex-President Nicholas Sarkozy, the Greens Party and the left-wing party members. He also admits having personally ordered the assassination of four enemies of the state.
  • One month after the November 2015 Paris attacks which resulted in 130 deaths, Hollande is said to have made the anti-Islam remarks to the journalists. He was quoted saying, “It's true that there's a problem with Islam. No one doubts it.” If that wasn’t enough, he added, “It's not that Islam poses a problem in the sense that it is a dangerous religion, but in as far as it wants to affirm itself as a religion of the Republic.”
  • Of immigrants, he reportedly said, "I think there are too many arrivals of immigration that shouldn't be there."
  • Any hope his party members entertained of a second consecutive term seem to have received a hard blow even as the book seems to have become a hit.

Why are his anti-Islam and anti-immigration remarks unsurprising?

  • Naïve, narcissistic, thoughtless… whatever is said of his comments, the opinion on Islam and immigrants only reflects – perhaps glaringly – the increasing hostility in France towards Muslims and immigrants following the spate of terror attacks and Europe-wide migrant crisis.
  • This summer, about 30 towns banned the ‘burkini’ swimsuit and caused the highest administrative court to condemn and suspend the ban on the grounds that it was a serious violation of basic freedoms. This highlights the mindset that made such a ban possible – one where the societal divide between Muslims and Westerners is deeply ingrained.
  • Sarkozy, Hollande’s bitter rival is also pushing for the centre-right nomination by marketing populist anti-immigration themes. French sociologist and media critic Ali Saad says any politician can conveniently demonize Islam and Muslims to generate fear among citizens and present her or his opponent in a weak light in a critical situation. Blaming Islam and inciting Islamophobia have become commonly adopted slogans since the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
  • The state of emergency has witnessed a huge number of house raids, searches and seizures. Rights groups have criticized the government-driven discrimination against and harassment of Muslims. "In the long term, such a stigma endured by Muslim citizens would force them into seclusion, which could entail grave consequences for France's social cohesion because isolation helps religious extremism to take roots and develop" says Saad.

When did Hollande assume office?

When he started off as a contestant in 2011, his chances of victory were low. Sarzoky’s increasing unpopularity and the sudden fall in fame of the party favorite Dominique Strauss-Kahn once his involvement in a sex scandal was exposed provided the stroke of good luck. Hollande was new and among other campaign promises, said he would reduce unemployment and fight against austerity measures.

  • He assumed office on 6 May 2012, with a majority of 51.9 per cent and became France’s first Socialist President in nearly 20 years.
  • On June 17, 2012, a phenomenal victory for his Socialist Party in the Legislative elections gave him the authority to keep a socialist government and make and take his own decisions without needing to convince other parties.
  • He introduced his 75 percent super-tax plan for the rich and prompted the then British Prime Minister David Cameron’s offer to “roll out a red carpet” for French millionaires wanting to leave their country. Cameron criticized the plan as uncompetitive and wrong. The feared exodus of millionaires didn’t happen but France’s reputation as a fertile ground for competition and businesses is said to have suffered a hit. The plan was dropped in 2014 after falling extremely short of expectations.
  • On January 11, 2013, France launched air attacks against Islamic militant targets in Mali to keep the Islamic extremists from gaining complete control of the nation.
  • In March 2013, he admitted France would miss the EU target of reducing the budget deficit to 3 percent and would definitely have to confront a budget deficit of 3.7 percent. This was a failure to fulfill one of his campaign’s key promises.
  • His approval rating reached a new low in March 2013. Starting off from a 59 percent approval rating, failure to live up to his two main campaign promises saw 67 percent of people in disapproval of his leadership. One positive action just after his first year of office was legalization of gay marriage and adoption in May 2013. France became the ninth nation in Europe and the fourteenth in the world to legally permit gay marriage. Despite severe protests, the government did not back off on this stand. A June 2015 BVA poll found 67 percent to favor gay marriage and in August 2016, an Ifop poll found that 65% of respondents were against repealing the 2013 law.

Where and when did he face his biggest crisis this year?

His only pitch which convinced people was he could take a tough stand against terrorism as commander-in-chief. In previous attacks he had risen to the occasion at least momentarily – he ordered air strikes against ISIS-dominated areas in Iraq and Syria and declared a state of emergency following the terrorist attacks in November 2015. But with the Nice attack on July 14 this year and his ineffective response it seemed the last pitch had fallen flat. At that place and time, people appeared to have lost hope in him.

  • Nice happened as the third major attack in 18 months despite all the security measures and the scale of terrorism extended its targets to senior citizens and children. France’s ability to get back on its feet was tested like never before.
  • The government’s slow response to warnings of further attacks and Hollande’s mere action of extending the emergency, which, in his own words was declared unnecessary just a few hours before placed him in a very poor light. An Ifop survey two days post attack showed two-thirds of the participants did not feel the government could deal with the threat.

Who have reacted to Hollande’s comments?

How could he have been so naive ”
  • A poll found 78 percent of the participants say Hollande made a mistake in giving these interviews.
  • One Socialist MP said the party members were aghast and another voiced the shock.
  • Magistrates said they were shocked and the footballers’ union said, “Sorry to disappoint you, but not all of us are thick.” Hollande had said the justice system is full of “cowards” and footballers need “brain-building”.
  • How likely is he to win if he contests for a second term?

    86 percent of those polled said they do not want him to contest again. Hollande has so far kept his options open.

    • In January this year, Hollande said France was in a state of economic emergency and introduced a 2.2 billion-dollar-plan to deal with unemployment. In the second quarter of this year, France’s unemployment rate fell to 9.9 percent from 10.2 percent in the first three months. This was the first time since the third quarter of 2012 that an unemployment rate of less than 10 percent had been achieved. Even in this ray of hope, polls suggested the presidential election would boil down to two candidates – Alain Juppe and Marine Le Pen – in the last lap. A poll in June suggested he would win the primaries but lose the election.
    • Notwithstanding, his high unpopularity rating, it was generally agreed that it would be a good idea if he ran again. The argument that only someone like him could bring together the two competing wings of the Socialists carried a lot of weight. That was until this week.
    • The defence that he was trying to be a “normal President” and “anti-Sarkozy” in every sense is made with decreasing conviction by his shrinking band of loyalists. According to political scientist Gerard Grunberg quoted by BBC, “In such abnormal times, France was not looking for a normal president.”

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