Francois Hollande was nick-named "Flanby" before taking office, Nina dos Santos writes
The French president has now become engulfed in a scandal surrounding his love life
But if there's one thing Hollande's soft side is not welcome on it's the economy, dos Santos says
Hollande needs to get to grips with the expectations of him and his responsibilities, she says
“Flanby,” or “milk pudding,” is what the French used to call Francois Hollande before electing him president.
Hardly the nickname of a great seducer is it?
Then again, power has always been the ultimate aphrodisiac. Especially in France.
After Nicolas Sarkozy became the first French president to divorce and remarry while in office, Hollande has become engulfed in a scandal surrounding his own love life, amid allegations of secret trysts with an actress in an apartment a stone’s throw away from the Elysee Palace – the official residence he shares with partner Valerie Trierweiler.
Considering speculation about the president’s private life will only heat up ahead of his state visit to Washington next month, it’s worth exploring what the furore will mean for Hollande’s image at home and abroad.
Studies carried out by the Pew Research Centre show that just 47% of French polled thought having an affair was “morally unacceptable” versus 76% in the UK, meaning France’s leader might not be judged too harshly back home. Indeed, some surveys have shown his popularity has actually increased – particularly among married French women.
But if there’s one thing Hollande’s soft side is not welcome on it’s the economy.
Why? Because a weak domestic market doesn’t just bode ill for France, as the second largest market in the region, it would be a disaster for Europe.
Rising to power on a mandate to curb austerity in favor of growth, he has achieved little of what he originally promised in 2012.
After flat-lining in 2013, France’s GDP is likely to be anaemic this year at best.
Unemployment, which Hollande promised to lower, has climbed steadily to just under 11%, a 16-year high, meaning more than three million French are now jobless, according to official figures.
Sky-high taxes, of up to 75% for top earners, threaten to prompt a brain drain and have deterred companies from investing and hiring in what is increasingly perceived as an anti-capitalist country.
The consequence? Both the manufacturing and service sectors have been contracting in France, despite the green shoots of recovery elsewhere – including in the eurozone’s cash-strapped periphery which has but a fraction of the French industrial base.
Meanwhile, attempts to shrink the size of the state, which accounts for more than half of the nation’s output and is still the largest and in some cases most prestigious employer, have been timid.
And, despite Hollande’s bluster and bark, it seems the deficit won’t get cut to 3% this year, as required by EU rules, after all.
In his third New Year news conference, Hollande vowed to shave more off state spending. But at 50 billion euros spread over two years, the extra cuts are unlikely to go far enough.
In a word, what President Hollande arguably lacks is credibility.
The bleak prognosis and lack of bold fiscal vision stripped France of its AAA crown. Explaining the move, ratings agency Standards & Poor’s said it didn’t believe the policy mix in place today would help substantially raise the nation’s medium-term growth prospects.
Which is why it would be surprising to see a president jeopardize his personal profile too.
At a time when Frenchmen and women are uncertain about their country’s future, the last thing anyone needs is a head of state who appears more interested in romance than reform.
And while France may be famous for the former, its economy is crying out for the latter.
Hollande should know full well the disdain which greeted Sarkozy’s whirlwind marriage while he was still in office as the eurozone crisis raged.
He’s already the most unpopular president in recent French history – quite an achievement for a solid socialist who always seemed the antithesis of his flash and brash predecessor.
Then again, Hollande has always been a child of ’68, harking back to the nation’s glorious student uprisings almost half a century ago – an era immortalized by slogans like “the more I make love, the more I want to make a revolution … the more revolution I make, the more I want to make love.”
Some say, the writing may already be on the wall for Hollande.
Sophie Pedder, Paris bureau chief of the Economist magazine, says it’s hard to see the president recovering his authority, even if he reshuffles his cabinet and sweeps through bold measures.
Then again, with record low support in the polls, she reckons it’s just as difficult to see what he has to lose.
Either way, with Europe heading towards the bloc’s parliamentary elections this year and the far right snapping at his heels, Francois Hollande needs to get to grips with the expectations and responsibilities resting on his shoulders.
Otherwise? Flanby may well get his just desserts.