16 May 2013

Happy anniversary? Recession marks first year for Hollande

The French president marks a year in office with a rare press conference. But with France entering recession and his popularity at an all-time low, it may not be the happiest of anniversaries.

It all started with such high hopes. The down-to-earth Francois Hollande promised a return to growth through socially-driven policies: taxing the rich, rather than imposing austerity. His election was heralded across the board as a sea-change in the politics of a crisis-ridden eurozone – even by those who didn’t necessarily agree.

But what a difference a year makes. President Hollande reached his first anniversary just in time for new figures which showed that the French economy fell into recession at the beginning of the year.

‘EU identity threatened’

The eurozone’s second-largest economy had previously escaped recession, normally defined as two consecutive quarters of falling output. But it contracted 0.2 per cent in the first three months of the year, after a fall of the same at the end of 2012. Economic predictions for the coming year are not optimistic either, and consumer spending fell 0.1 per cent in the first quarter from the final quarter of last year.

You are smiling too much. You look too American, too much like Kennedy. President Hollande’s girlfriend helps choose an official photo

One year into his five-year term, President Hollande answered to a tough press pack at the Elysée Palace, for only the second time in his premiership.

His main topic was the eurozone crisis: Mr Hollande said that the recession was “threatening the very identity of Europe”. His solution? A monthly meeting of eurozone countries, to “harmonise tax policy, start converging social policies from the top and launch a battle against tax fraud,” he said.

Happy anniversary? Recession marks first year for Hollande (G)

The French president also said that France and Germany must lead Europe, despite reportedly frosty relations with Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But the president also faced tough questions on rekindling France’s own economy, amid concerns that the government will not be able to secure loans if its economy fails to grow. He repeated his pledge to reduce unemployment by the end of the year.

“The whole question is whether we will have a recovery during the course of 2013,” he said. “Will growth recover in the second half of the year? That demands a lot on European decisions.”

Read more: Why France’s super-rich fear Hollande’s first budget

Popularity slump

The press conference also coincides with a new behind-the-scenes documentary about the president, Pouvoir, which is billed as the first up-close and personal look at the man behind the president.

The film will be seen as an attempt to get the French public, who do not appear to have warmed to “Mr Normal”, on side. A feud involving his live-in partner, his former girlfriend, and his eldest son, cast a shadow over the president’s already controversial personal life during Bastille Day celebrations.

But much has been made of the role of Valerie Trierweiler, the president’s girlfriend in the documentary. “You are smiling too much. You look too American, too much like Kennedy,” she says, while he chooses his official photograph.

The president’s popularity, or lack of, was not helped by various tax scandals which revealed that even members of a so-called “socialist” administration can be involved in tax evasion, even while the president was imposing a 75 per cent tax on the super-rich.

French newspapers called it Mr Hollande’s biggest political crisis, even considering his sending French troops into Mali and the hugely controversial gay marriage bill.

Mr Hollande’s approval rating is now in the low 20s, while a survey by CSA in April showed that only 11 per cent of those polled think Mr Hollande will succeed in his objective of getting unemployment to fall by the end of the year.

An anniversary it may be. But a happy one? That will be up for debate.