Opinion: Personal or political, it’s time for Hollande to put himself in order

Editor’s Note: Nina dos Santos is a London-based news anchor and correspondent. She is the host of CNN International World Business Today’s Twice Daily World Economic Program. Follow her Twitter.

Highlights of the story

Francois Hollande was nicknamed “Flanby” before taking office, writes Nina dos Santos

The French president has now been overwhelmed by a scandal surrounding his love life

But if there’s one thing Hollande’s soft side isn’t welcome it’s economics, dos Santos says

Hollande needs to come to terms with expectations of him and his responsibilities, he says



CNN

“Flanby”, or “milk pudding”, is what the French called Francois Hollande before they elected him president.

Isn’t that the nickname of a great seducer?

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 was embroiled in a scandal about his own love life, amid allegations of secret attempts with an actress in an apartment a stone’s throw away. Eliseo: the official residence he shares with his partner Valerie Trierweiler.

Considering that speculation about the president’s private life will only increase ahead of his state visit to Washington next month, it’s worth exploring what the furore for Hollande’s image at home and abroad will mean.

Studies conducted by the Pew Research Center show that only 47% of French respondents thought having an affair was “morally unacceptable” versus 76% in the UK, meaning the French leader may not be judged too harshly at home. In fact, some polls have shown that his popularity has actually increased, particularly among married French women.

But if there’s one thing Hollande’s weak side isn’t welcome it’s economics.

How come? Because a weak internal market is not only a bad omen for France, as the second largest market in the region, it would be a disaster for Europe.

Rising to power with a mandate to curb austerity for growth, it has achieved little of what it originally promised in 2012.

After stalling in 2013, French GDP is likely to be at its most anemic this year.

Unemployment, which Hollande has promised to reduce, has steadily risen to just under 11%, a 16-year high, meaning more than three million French people are now out of work, according to official figures.

Sky-high taxes, up to 75% for the highest incomes, threaten to cause a brain drain and have dissuaded companies from investing and hiring in what is increasingly perceived as an anti-capitalist country.

The result? Both the manufacturing and services sectors are contracting in France, despite the green shoots of recovery elsewhere, even in the cash-strapped periphery of the eurozone which has only a fraction of the French industrial base.

Meanwhile, attempts to reduce the size of the state, which accounts for more than half of national production and is still the largest and in some cases the most prestigious employer, have been timid.

And, despite Hollande’s bragging and barking, it looks like the deficit won’t be reduced to 3% this year, as required by EU rules, after all.

In his third New Year press conference, Hollande voted to shave more state spending. But at € 50 billion spread over two years, the extra cuts are unlikely to go far enough.

In a word, what President Hollande probably lacks is credibility.

The bleak prognosis and lack of a bold fiscal vision have deprived France of its AAA crown. Explaining the move, ratings agency Standards & Poor’s said it did not believe the mix of policies in place today would help substantially increase the nation’s medium-term growth prospects.

That is why it would be surprising to see a president jeopardize his personal profile as well.

At a time when the French 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 clamoring for the latter.

Hollande should be well acquainted with the contempt that greeted Sarkozy’s whirlwind marriage while he was still in office as the eurozone crisis raged.

He is already the most unpopular president in recent French history – a fine achievement for a solid socialist who has always seemed the antithesis of his brash and brash predecessor.

Plus, Hollande has always been a ’68 kid, recalling the nation’s glorious student uprisings nearly 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 revolutions I make, the more I want to make love.

Some say the writing may already be on the wall for Hollande.

Sophie Pedder, head of Economist magazine’s Paris office, says it’s hard to see the president regain his authority, even if he shuffles his cabinet and goes through bold measures.

Then again, with record support in the polls, he feels it’s just as difficult to see what he’s got to lose.

Either way, with Europe heading towards the bloc’s parliamentary elections this year and the far right on its heels, Francois Hollande has to contend with the expectations and responsibilities on his shoulders.

Otherwise? Flanby might also have its right desserts.

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