Hollande slumps in polls ... and it could get worse

By Tony Cross

After four months in power President François Hollande has suffered a massive drop in popularity, his government is split over the eurozone fiscal pact and companies continue to lay workers off. This week is unlikely to see a turnaround — new unemployment figures will be announced on Wednesday and the cabinet will discuss a widely dreaded budget on Friday.

The number of people unhappy with Hollande’s performance rose 11 per cent in September to 56 per cent, according to an Ifop opinion poll published in the Journal du Dimanche on Sunday, confirming a slide in popularity that was already apparent.

It’s not the biggest drop of any president ever — Charles De Gaulle did worse after agreeing to quit Algeria and so did Jacques Chirac in 2005 after a referendum rejected the European constitutional treaty he and most of the political establishment had supported.

But it’s not good news for a president whose principal weapon in the fight to be elected was widespread disillusion with his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The government can’t gain much comfort from the performance of Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, either. Like his predecessor François Fillon, he is taking less flak than the boss but he is still down seven points in the popularity stakes with 46 per cent unhappy with his record in office.

Hollande on Saturday appealed to be «judged on results» and ministers have pleaded for time to tackle an economic crisis they insist was not of their making.

«Passing a collective and personal judgement after four months makes absolutely no sense,» Interior Minister Manuel Valls declared on Sunday, while parliamentary speaker Claude Bartolone insisted that the government has not had time to «repair what the right has taken 10 years to destroy».

But sooner or later that argument is going to start wearing thin and voters will expect the government to come up with something to tackle unemployment and improve living standards.

The Socialists know things are going to get worse before they get better, if the latter possibility is even on the agenda.

The budget that the cabinet is to discuss on Friday was «the most difficult» to draw up since World War II, government spokesperson Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said on Monday.

It is supposed to begin the task of bringing the deficit down to three per cent of GDP as from 2013, a target Bartolone has already declared impossible.

That will mean cuts and tax rises. Public spending is expected to be reduced by 10 billion euros, according to Le Monde newspaper, meaning that taxes are set to go up by well over 20 billion euros.

«When a government and a president of the republic prepare the adoption of a budget like that they don’t imagine they’re going to gain 11 points in the polls,» Vallaud-Belkacem said again shifting the blame onto previous right-wing governments who have «put off for too long» the «responsible decisions» that her party will have to take.

Predictably, the right-wing opposition has leapt on the poll findings.

Hollande is «paying the bill» for his «imposture» during the election campaign, according to Jean-François Copé, who is currently locked in battle with Fillon for the leadership of their party, the UMP.

«The Socialists weren’t ready [to run the country] and they are just improvising,» said former prime minister and Sarkozy-era foreign minister Alain Juppé.

On the far right, Front National leader Marine Le Pen told her party’s summer school that Hollande has resigned himself to mass unemployment, allowed mass immigration and failed to renegotiate the European fiscal pact.

The Socialists’ coalition partners, the Greens, have not done much to help.

While their leader in the Senate, Jean-Vincent Placé, judged the poll results «worrying», he and other party leaders indicated that EELV MPs and senators will vote against ratifying the European fiscal pact, infuriating Socialist bigwigs who dubbed them «irresponsible».

Green Euro-MP Daniel Cohn-Bendit agrees. The former angry young student leader of 1968 turned ecologist grumpy old man has «suspended» — perhaps forever — his work with the French party over a decision he has described as «tragically crap».

If the Greens go ahead and vote against, they will be joining Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Left Front and, possibly, some left-wing Socialists, leaving the government in the embarrassing position of having to rely on the right-wing opposition to push the treaty through.

It may not be quite as bad as it looks for Hollande, who makes his first appearance at the UN this week.

The polls show «disenchantment» rather than «hostility» according to Frédéric Dabi of pollsters Ifop.

Hollande’s low-key election campaign did not raise many expectations and French voters know that the crisis is Europe-wide, if not worldwide, and started before he took office.

But he did promise that the rich would bear more of the burden of recovery than they did under Sarkozy, notably with a pledge to tax incomes over one million euros at 75 per cent.

If the government waters down that commitment, as right-wing Le Figaro claims it is preparing to, — or if, as the right argues, tax rises will cause businesses to flee the country — sorrow may turn to anger, especially of middle-class and working-class families find themselves paying higher taxes and losing jobs and services.

Unemployment continues to rise. Pharmacy and cosmetics company Sanofi is among a number of companies pushing through redundancies this week, while the Petroplus oil refinery is et to close.

The laid-off workers will join a dole queue which is expected to be three million workers long when monthly statistics are published on Wednesday.

With the European Union teetering on the brink of recession, there is likely to be more misery to come.

Hollande and Ayrault may hope to save their political careers if the crisis is over by the time of the next election in five years time. For millions of others, it’s already too late.