Hollande popularity slides as French economy wanes

Reuters News
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Posted: Aug 28, 2012 12:25 PM
Hollande popularity slides as French economy wanes

By Catherine Bremer

PARIS (Reuters) - France's Socialist President Francois Hollande raised expectations he would revive the economy and stem soaring unemployment during his election campaign, but tumbling opinion poll scores show the public is losing patience.

Hollande's approval rating has slid to 44 percent in one poll from above 60 percent in May when he took over from the unpopular Nicolas Sarkozy. A second survey shows 72 percent of voters feel he is acting too slowly to resolve their problems.

The drop in popularity, as the French return from summer holidays, leaves Hollande vulnerable to public anger as he prepares a 2013 budget that must save 30 billion euros ($37.70 billion) to meet deficit goals and asks parliament to ratify a European fiscal pact which eurosceptics fear will expose France to more Brussels-imposed austerity.

"Hollande set the bar high by saying he would have original ideas. People are disappointed. They feel he doesn't have the solutions he made out he had," said Jerome Sainte-Marie at pollster CSA, whose latest survey found just 49 percent of French have faith in Hollande, down 5 points from late July.

A poll by Ipsos, released on Monday, put Hollande's approval rating at 44 percent, down from 55 percent in July, and found 47 percent of those surveyed gave him a thumbs down.

Hollande's honeymoon has ended much faster than that of his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, whose ratings only dipped below the 50 percent mark eight months into his 2007-12 term as his personality grated.

The rapid fall from grace is prompting political opponents to attack Hollande's low-key leadership style, which contrasts with the frenetic and all-controlling Sarkozy, and ask whether he has it in him to whip the economy back into shape.

Conservative lawmaker and mayor of Nice Christian Estrosi sniffed recently that even if Sarkozy was mocked for being a "hyper-president", having a "hypo-president" who suffered from inertia was hardly better.

SWEETENERS

Hollande's sinking popularity has more to do with the stark economic outlook and a sense he will stick with the previous government's centrist policies than criticism of his style.

Yet his reluctance to shake things up is weighing too, and hard-left voters resent that protectionist rhetoric during Hollande's campaign is not being translated into action.

"The main cause is the rise in unemployment and the talk of more layoffs to come. People hoped for a change, maybe a kind of protectionism but they see classic economic policies and a worsening in the economy and employment," Sainte-Marie said.

Hollande has taken power as economic growth has slowed to a near standstill and jobless claims have surged for 15 straight months to hit a more than 13-year high in July above 10 percent.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault admitted on Monday the government will likely have to cut its 2013 growth target of 1.2 percent, which economists feel should be halved. Labor Minister Michel Sapin said on Tuesday that unemployment is set to get worse.

Anxious to keep the nation behind him as he readies a slimline budget for late September, Hollande has set Ayrault into action announcing sweeteners like fuel price cuts and higher ceilings on tax-free saving accounts.

The fuel price change will shave up to 6 euro cents off the price of a liter over three months, the government said as it detailed the measure on Tuesday.

Last week Ayrault, whose ratings also have dropped below 50 percent, said a law was being readied to double the amount of money people can squirrel away in tax-free, state-guaranteed savings accounts.

So far, the measures have not dampened critical mutterings about Hollande's debut, even on the left, the strongest being radical leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon's claim that the president's first 100 days in office had been a waste of time.

"As France flirts with recession and we approach the dangerous level of 3 million out of work, Hollande and the Socialists seem incapable of taking bold decisions," Conservative lawmaker Franck Riester said on Monday.

The daily Le Monde's front page cartoon meanwhile depicted a perspiring Hollande by a flip-chart graph showing economic growth tanking. "Facts are stubborn things, as Lenin said," he remarks to Ayrault, as his predecessor jogs by in the background, and adds: "Sarkozy used to say that too!" ($1 = 0.7958 euros)

(Reporting By Catherine Bremer; Editing by Michael Roddy)