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Sunday 28 April 2013


Gallic 'Jimmy Carter' is a man who is in desperate need of a personality

The poor old French president Hollande is not just incompetent, he is also unlucky, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

I'm no fan of President Francois Hollande, but how can one not be sorry for the poor wretch. Less than a year ago, this dull, unattractive man defeated Nicolas Sarkozy to become the second socialist president of the Fifth French Republic – the one that came into being in 1958 and beefed up the power of the presidency. The first was Francois Mitterrand – that wily friend of Charlie Haughey, and, it turns out, sometimes Margaret Thatcher – who was dodgy but a political heavyweight.

Hollande, a (mostly back-room) career politician whose main claim to fame was that he had served 11 years as the first secretary of the Socialist Party and was the father of the four children of Segolene Royal (who lost the 2007 presidential election to Nicolas Sarkozy), defeated the unpopular Sarko and swept into power with Valerie Trierweiler, a beautiful journalist, on his arm. No one doubted that he was there faute de mieux (ie for lack of anyone better), since the front socialist runner, the brilliant Dominique Strauss-Kahn, had had an unfortunate incident in a New York hotel room with a maid who had unaccountably complained of being forced into a sex act by a total stranger. Sadly, she was too uneducated to appreciate that she should have been honoured by being paid such attention by the head of the International Monetary Fund.

Anyway, despite having the charisma of a turnip, and even though France already suffered from high taxes, over-regulation and a sluggish economy, Hollande won on a platform that included raising taxes on the rich, creating jobs, reversing Sarko's evil decision to reduce the official retirement age from 62 to 60 and giving marriage and adoption rights to same-sex couples.

So where is he now?

For a start, there isn't much peace at home. The embarrassingly public hostilities between the mother of Hollande's children and his tempestuous consort are temporarily off the radar, but Ms Trierweiler is ensuring that the public can't ignore her biographers' allegations about her penchant for sleeping with influential politicians by suing for invasion of privacy.

Soaking the rich was popular, except with the rich, who when threatened with a 75 per cent top rate began decamping to foreign parts at speed and in large numbers: most famously, Gerard Depardieu, the Frenchman's Frenchman, became a Russian citizen.

In London, we watch with resignation as the already large Gallic community is swollen by the influx of the seriously affluent.

Tax increases have not only hit the French government's coffers, but are accompanied by a decline in business confidence, a shrinking economy and record joblessness.

Hollande forced gay marriage and gay adoption through, but at the cost of reigniting old wars between church and state, country and city. At its height, street protests reached almost a million, there were frightening riots and homophobic violence increased. All but the most tunnel-visioned have been asking for months why the president should have made such a divisive social issue a top priority when the national economy is heading for intensive care.

And then came the scandal of Jerome Cahuzac, the minister charged with combating tax evasion, who turned out to have around €600,000 in an undeclared foreign bank account. Hollande panicked and announced legislation requiring all elected politicians to declare their assets.

Some ministers have already complied, and the public have discovered that many of those governing them are, surprise, surprise, champagne socialists, and the bad publicity has infuriated Hollande's party, which has joined in the national disillusion with the president.

In foreign affairs, he had a brief moment of glory with a so-far successful intervention in Mali (once a colony), to drive out militant Islamists, but there has now been an attack on the French embassy in Libya which has aroused fears that al-Qaeda has put France high on its to-do list.

Oh, and the baby camel given to Hollande when he visited a grateful Mali was eaten by the Timbuktu family in whose care he left it. That wasn't his fault, and some of what he's blamed for now isn't either, but it makes no difference. He's not just incompetent, he's unlucky. You could call him a Gallic Jimmy Carter.

Closer to home, Angela Merkel so despairs of his uselessness that she's taken to courting David Cameron.

Hollande's poll ratings are nightmarish: at the last count, his disapproval level was 75 per cent. He's not a bad man, but at a time of national crisis, when his country needs a strong and inspirational leader, his absence of personality is a disaster. The Economist recently quoted a Paris-Match writer who said that as president, "he prompts neither hatred, nor admiration, nor any excessive or passionate feeling . . . it is as if he is transparent."

He's the president who isn't there. Poor old Hollande. Poor old France.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards