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Europe

A love affair that didn't last the summer

With unemployment nosing past 3 million and growth flat-lining, bad news has surrounded still-fresh President Francois Hollande since the French got back from their long, paid summer holidays.

Opinion polls say 68 percent of the French feel pessimistic about their future - a highest-ever figure for the first months of a presidential term of office. With his personal approval rating dropping 11 points since his May election victory, the new French leader - despite his gay and affable nature - may be on his way to joining them.

It is true that it is early days. Nobody can turn a country around in four months. This week, the president said he would need two years. But, as the French well remember, his election campaign slogan was: "Le Changement - c'est maintenant!" [Change - it's now!], not "Le Changement dans deux ans" [Change in two years].

"The French have the impression that he has been wasting time," says Marie-Eve Malouines, head of the political service at France Info radio and author of a biography of the new president. "There was a lot of bad news during the summer and the president seemed inactive."

For his opponents, there's only one thing worse than Hollande inaction: Hollande action.

Cyrille Darrigade of the association of self-employed entrepreneurs - a status created by Hollande's predecessor and which is now enjoyed by a million people - says "he looks more and more like someone who does not keep his promises."

Hollande has pledged to un-do Sarkozy's cost-saving retirement pension reform and junk his predecessor's policy of not replacing one out of two public servants when they reach retirement age.

At the same time he has promised to hire 10,000 more police and 40,000 more teachers. While promising to reduce the deficit and France's massive debt.

Lopsided partnership

So how's he going to do it?

Perhaps he should have had a different election slogan: "Read my lips. More taxes!"

"For us self-employed entrepreneurs he is increasing taxes on our earnings," says Darrigade.

“The new government has also announced it is raising obligatory employers' national insurance and other contributions which will make employing people more expensive and he is re-introducing tax on overtime” (which Sarkozy abolished).

The growing opposition to Hollande says that all of these measures are making France less competitive. And yet the new president promised to defend French industry, creating a new ministry for "productive recovery."

Beschäftigte des Autobauerkonzerns PSA Peugeot-Citroen protestieren gegen die Schließung ihres Werks in Aulnay-sous-bois

Peugeot laid off 8,000 employees this summer at Aulnay

One of its first challenges was the announcement by car maker Peugeot that it was closing its plant at Aulnay, laying off 8,000 workers.

Hollande first said this was “unacceptable” before admitting that it was "inevitable."

As the economy falters, the gap between France and Germany has been getting wider. The “Franco-German motor” looking like a Mercedes on one side and a Renault 5 on the other.

Germany has long been re-emerging as a major political power. Thanks to its economic strength, re-unification and Germany's Nazi past slipping, year by year, further into history.

That shift inside the Franco-German partnership was masked to some degree during the Sarkozy years because of the Frenchman's outstanding dynamism and leadership skills.

Enough Mr. Normal

Now it is likely to become more apparent.

Because Hollande has made a virtue of not being outstanding - he is at last the self-proclaimed “normal” president.

The French, Hollande perceived, had had 5 years of “hyper-presidency” with Nicolas Sarkozy and were heartily sick of it. They wanted a change from the hyper-activity and media omnipresence.

In reaction to Sarkozy, they chose a very different sort of leader from the kind they usually elect. Hollande is a compromise man. A committee man. A consensus politician of the sort you might find in Scandinavia. Very unlike the creator of France's very presidential Fifth Republic, Charles De Gaulle.

The French, though, have already had enough of Mister Normal, says his biographer Marie-Eve Malouines. “All this taking the train,” she says, “it looks too stagey.” People see through it.

And now that Sarkozy is away from the limelight, looking relaxed, tanned and stubbly in the occasional photo that crops up in the Sarkozy-worshipping Figaro newspaper, Hollande's normality is, in any case, far less appealing.

Nicolas Sarkozy tritt ab

Hollande hasn't profited from Sarkozy's exit as much as he may have thought

Sarkozy a much-needed adversary?

What seemed balanced and normal while Sarkozy was around now looks more like absence and insufficiency. What seemed moderate and reasonable now looks more like indecision even impotence.

And then there was the killer tweet.

Nicolas Sarkozy spent all of his five years in office trying to shake off the bad impression he gave on the very night of his election.

Instead of going straight to join the crowds massing to celebrate his victory on the Place de la Concorde, Sarkozy chose to receive the congratulations of his business tycoon friends in the chic Champs-Elysées ‘brasserie' Fouquet's.

But early on in his presidency, Hollande also had a Fouquet's moment.

During the legislative elections that followed the presidential poll, Hollande's partner, the Paris Match journalist Valerie Trierweiler tweeted her support to a dissident Socialist Party candidate who was standing against the former PS presidential candidate Segolene Royal, Hollande's ex and mother of his four children.

This incident did not reflect well on Hollande's authority and dented his carefully created public image.

“Perhaps Hollande still seemed normal,” says Marie-Eve Malouines, “his girlfriend definitely didn't seem to be.”

It was, says Malouines, the end of Hollande's honeymoon with French public opinion.

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