French President Francois Hollande is now at his weakest political standing yet, with public approval at a new low and his own party uncertain over his candidacy in the 2017 elections.
“Is this a joke?” It was with this prompt remark directed to the president that journalist Lea Salame highlighted the dire situation in which the head of state is currently in. The distrust that Mrs. Salame showed toward the president’s answers is indicative of the wider rift between Francois Hollande and his electorate.
As the center-right Les Republicains (LR) party is embattled in politically costly primaries, the attention is increasingly turning toward the political fate of Hollande. The main question is whether the President is politically finished — and whether he will even run in the upcoming 2017 elections.
A rift with the French electorate
The mid-April interview was a strong indicator of the French electorate’s disenchantment with President Hollande. The France 2 interview was followed by only 3.5 million people, approximately 14.3% of the general audience, a number lower than those watching other major channels that evening. In addition, the audience was of approximately a million people less than in a similar interview Hollande gave in March 2013.
President Hollande’s rift with the French public seems to have reached a point of no return. According to an IPSO-Le Point poll, less than 15% of French people had a favorable opinion of the president in March 2016 . More than 80% percent of those polled have a negative opinion of him. In addition, 71% of French electorate wouldn’t want President Hollande to be the candidate for the ruling Parti Socialiste (PS) in 2017.
These numbers come as a clear sanction to Hollande’s current failure to respond to high unemployment rates and structural economic issues. The president ran in 2012 on a platform based on economic development and social reforms. Four years after his elections, his results are more than questionable.
Labor unions have systematically opposed the government-backed reforms, and unemployment rates are higher than the average in the EU. Furthermore, students have been demonstrating against proposed changes in the labor market, and a large anti-establishment protest emerged in the country’s main cities.
A divided socialist party for Hollande
President Hollande’s political decay comes against the backdrop of heightened tensions within the PS. The party is torn by the question of whether it should hold primaries as the center-right is currently doing. While a vast majority of the French electorate would favor such a measure, it would most probably result in a loss for Hollande, further hindering the overall political credibility of the socialists.
Finance Minister Emmanuel Macron’s choice to launch his own political movement, En Marche!, in April also came as an additional obstacle for Francois Hollande. Macron is the center-left politician with the highest approval rates, and has created a movement meant to bridge the right-left divide with the objective of pushing for economic growth. This message is supported by France’s entrepreneurial and industrial spheres, which have grown disillusioned with the government’s capacity to enact the promised reforms.
While Macron stated that he is not currently planning to run for president, the buzz created by En Marche! exemplifies the fact that the French electorate is ripe for new options. This does not bode well for a candidacy of Francois Hollande in 2017.
The second round scenario
Francois Hollande’s sole political lifeline appears to be his plan to rally the PS around him by playing on concerns generated by the rise of the Front National (FN). The right-wing nationalist party led by Marine Le Pen is widely believed to be able to reach the second round of the Presidential elections of 2017, regardless of the candidates for the Les Republicains and the PS.
President Hollande may try to play the card of continuity and stability to present himself as the only potentially successful opponent against Marine Le Pen. Les Republicains are currently engaged in an intra-party battle in which a dozen candidates are fighting for the nomination for the presidential elections. Given the lack of a coherent center-right voice, President Hollande may try to position himself as the only option against the FN.
While this calculation may partially hold the ground, current indicators suggest that the rift between Francois Hollande and the French public opinion may be too deep to fill, and political maneuvers may no longer be sufficient to do so. As such, the best option to counter Marine Le Pen will be to come up with a clear policy line based on the two main topics of interests (the economy and the security of the country) brought forward by a single and strong candidate.
Riccardo Dugulin is an analyst at Drum Cussac, a global business risk consultancy. He specializes in supporting international organizations and large corporations operating in emerging markets by providing them with critical risk management intelligence. His regions of expertise are the Near East, the Gulf, North Africa and Continental Europe. He previously worked as project manager for a French medical assistance company. He gained field experience in the Middle East having worked for leading think tanks in Dubai and Beirut. Riccardo holds a Master in International Affairs from the Sciences Po – Paris and a Bachelor in Middle Eastern Studies from the same university. Follow him on Twitter @RiccardoDugulin.