French President prepares for potential re-election bid
PARIS: The most unpopular president in France's modern history, Francois Hollande, is preparing the ground for a potential re-election bid. His leftist base is in open revolt, protesting youth are clashing with police nearly every night, and France is in a six-month state of emergency — yet he is on a new mission to convince the French that "things are getting better."
One critic compared it to trying to save the Titanic, but Hollande's supporters are counting on glimmers of good economic news to regain the confidence of left-wing voters who brought him to office.
The government set the dates this week for the next election — two rounds on April 23 and May 7, 2017. The 61-year-old Socialist president has not formally announced his intention to run, but more and more signs are emerging that he's in campaign mode.
Hollande's term has been tarnished from the beginning by a high unemployement rate, stagnant economy and tax increases. Two years ago, the government adopted a more pro-business policy that triggered opposition from the far left and even some mainstream Socialists.
The government now faces hard times defending a labor reform that has prompted protests across France.
Yet Hollande and his entourage keep repeating, like a slogan, that "things are getting better."
Since coming into office in 2012, "we had to modernize the country to ensure its place in a globalized world," Hollande said in a speech this week meant to defend his leftist record.
Many critics from the left and the right have pointed out the government's inability to implement major economic reform. "Major changes are gained through ... gradual reforms. There is no clean slate, no finishing line, there a constant, persisting motion," he said.
In the last few weeks, the government announced popular measures: an 800-euro ($920) bonus per year to primary school teachers and salary increases for all civil servants. Hollande also suggested that taxes could decrease next year for modest households.
"I hope and I believe that Francois Hollande will be a candidate," the president of the Socialist group in the Senate, Didier Guillaume, said Wednesday on LCI television.
A group of members of the government — including Hollande's closest friends — launched a support campaign last month called "He on the left."
Stephane Le Foll, government spokesman and leader of the movement, explained the goal is to show that the government "has achieved things."
Conservative politicians mocked the initiative. "This operation rings out like a SOS from the Titanic," said the head of the conservative Republicans group at the lower house of parliament Christian Jacob.
In March, France's jobless total saw its biggest monthly drop in 16 years, according to government statistics. The unemployment rate has hovered over 10 percent for years.
The state statistics agency Insee said France's economy grew 0.5 percent in the first quarter of 2016, slightly more than initial previsions.
To promote his economic policy, Hollande visits almost one business per week. France "is able to create, to produce in France, to export and we must have confidence," he recently said during a visit to defense group Thales.
The latest economic forecasts of the European commission — the EU executive body — confirm "France's economy is expected to slightly accelerate" this year. "Unemployment, however, looks unlikely to improve until 2017," the commission stressed.
All recent polls show a majority of French people does not want Hollande to run again and his approval rate remains under 20 percent.
Meanwhile, far-right leader Marine Le Pen appears to be in position to qualify for the second round of the presidential election, between the two candidates receiving the most votes in the first round.
The conservative Republicans party has set up primaries in November. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy has not formally announced his candidacy but he does not hide his intention to run. Sarkozy will face other candidates like former prime ministers Alain Juppe, tipped by polls to win the Republican primaries, and Francois Fillon.
Challenging Hollande's authority, his ambitious and outspoken Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron last month launched a political movement to promote his own "fresh ideas." The popular 38-year-old minister said it is not his priority to be a candidate to the 2017 presidential election, but many observers think the opposite.