Francois Hollande met in New York on Tuesday with Arab leaders – Mohammed Mursi, Mahmoud Abbas, Najib Mikati and King Abdullah of Jordan – for discussions about solutions for their countries, and what France can do for them. The French president’s discussions come as his popularity in opinion polls has declined, in a reflection of the poor socio-economic situation in his country.
Several countries in the Middle East are looking to France to play a significant role; all officials in the Arab region regularly want to be received by the French president, because he heads a fundamentally important country in Europe, with a rich history. However, the French are currently dissatisfied with their president. They elected Hollande because they wanted to rid themselves of the personality of his predecessor, the right’s Nicolas Sarkozy, who was energetic, provocative, mercurial and authoritarian. The French people gave Hollande their full support in France’s Parliament and Senate, and the economic situation, the unemployment rate, covering three million people, and downsizing by big firms were all expected. However, the French have begun to feel the impact in strong fashion. The rising cost of living and the rising level of taxes, due to the large state budget deficit, have affected the middle class, and not just the wealthy. Everyone in France is now sensing the crisis acutely, and believes that the Hollande government is unable to produce a solution, as it lacks the expertise to do so. The president has a pleasant personality and is close to the people; unlike Sarkozy, he is calm and warm in his dealing with the public. He respects everyone he works with, from the lowest-level employee up to the most senior figure. Since the outset, Hollande has sought to follow a policy that is the opposite of Sarkozy’s. The French media has described Hollande as an “ordinary” type of president, one who uses the train to get around on many occasions, instead of the expensive presidential plane; he has modified many of the traditional aspects of the presidency. Diplomats and foreign officials who have met with Hollande say that he is a good listener, and serious in studying issues and understanding them. But such traits are insufficient to boost his popularity. In addition to the economic situation and the deteriorating social situation in France, Hollande suffers from having a team that is inexperienced in public affairs. The president’s media team, for example, lacks experience in dealing with the press, and there have been several mistakes. His Cabinet team, meanwhile, issues contradictory statements in announcing decisions that will be taken, while denials are issued about such moves.
Certainly, Hollande needs to exhibit a greater level of influence over his fragmented teams of assistants. He is in need of more experienced people to relay his thoughts and statements. Jacques Chirac behaved more skillfully, when he tasked Catherine Colonna, a bright diplomat, with being his official spokesperson, and later named her as a minister. She was followed by another bright diplomat, Jerome Bonnafont, who is now France’s ambassador to Spain. Sarkozy abolished the post when he became angry with the person acting as his spokesperson, and suddenly fired him. Hollande has erred by not re-creating the post, because it is an important one for the president’s image.
The decline in Hollande’s popularity also reflects a maturing French public opinion, which forcefully expresses its dissatisfaction with the weak influence of the president. But Hollande is still at the beginning of his term and he can correct the mistakes, especially since he is a president who engages in dialogue and seeks out people for consultation. Although the economic conditions in France are the basis of people’s unhappiness, there is a need for someone to explain and defend the president's policies with skill and intelligence. Hollande cannot do this by himself; instead, he needs a political and media team that is more harmonious and more competent.
(Randa Takieddine is a writer for Al-Hayat newspaper where this article was published on Sept. 30, 2012)