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French Pessimism Returns Three Months After Hollande's Victory

Francoise Hollande, who briefly inspired hope in both France and Southern Europe, no longer offers any.
By Amiel Ungar
First Publish: 9/4/2012, 4:20 AM

Hollande with Rajoy
Hollande with Rajoy
Reuters

Francois Hollande's honeymoon on the French and the international stage has been brief. His approval rating has come sharply down to earth and if his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy was viewed as hyperactive, he has been faulted as too passive.

Less than 3 months after the dancing at the Bastille in celebration of Hollande's electoral victory, France is highly pessimistic about the future and this pessimism cuts across all parties.

To display some activism, President Hollande is calling back Parliament from vacation two weeks early to pass legislation, including a bill to create makework jobs for 150,000 disadvantaged youth. The program, which the Socialists have employed before, is justified as creating a sense of personal worth and instilling discipline, but it does not provide a skill level beyond a dead-end job.

The president was hit by another piece of bad news when he learned that the government will have to bail out a major real estate bank to the tune of €5 billion. Given the pressure to bring the budget in line and reduce the deficit to 3% of GDP, this added burden will make the budgetary objective that much harder to achieve.

Compounding the problem is stagnant growth that may contract further, reducing income and widening the budget gap.

While the new president and the new Socialist government can hardly be blamed for the recent gang violence in Marseille that prompted the city's mayor to request the government to call in the army to subdue the gangs, it hardly contributes to a feel-good factor.

If Frenchmen have quickly given up on the idea that the alternance  will usher in a new era, the same can be said of southern Europe. The Mediterranean countries had hoped that France could provide a counterweight to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her insistence on austerity. The new French government was expected to emphasize growth at the expense of austerity.

While at first Hollande played tit-for-tat with Merkel for endorsing his rival Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential elections, by meeting first with her German Socialist rivals prior to their first encounter, Franco German relations have resumed their intimate course, with Hollande moving in the direction of Merkel rather than the reverse.

This could be seen in the recent visit to Germany and France by Greek premier Antonis Samaras, when the differences between the two leaders was only one of style, with Hollande saluting the Greek people for their efforts.

In terms of Spain, Hollande has been more willing to demand action by the European Central Bank to reduce Spanish borrowing rates, but he has not returned to be the prophet of growth over austerity – a role that he played prior to his election.