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France’s unpopular Hollande launches 2015 charm offensive

Screen grab of President François Hollande speaking to France Inter radio on January 5, 2015.

French President François Hollande has kicked off a marathon media campaign aimed at championing a string of economic reforms and reversing his record-low approval ratings at the three-year mark of his presidency.

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Hollande started the New Year on Monday with an unprecedented two-hour interview on the public radio station France Inter, fielding questions from listeners and addressing a wide range of topics.

The president, whose popularity has plunged to historic lows amid rising jobless figures, addressed France’s weak economy, but also the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, the rise of far-right parties and efforts to curb global warning.

“I take responsibility,” he said in reference to a national GDP that crawled below 1% in 2014 and unemployment figures that stood at a record 3.5 million people in November. “I am the president of the Republic. I’m not going to say ‘it’s because of immigrants, because of the financial crisis’,” he added.

Hollande also tried to rally support for a pair of economic reforms he said would get people back to work if given a fair chance, echoing a traditional New Year’s speech he delivered on live television last week, which was watched by millions across the country.

He will make several more media appearances in the coming days, including a visit and speech to the nation’s armed forces and veterans in the central Loiret region next week, and a huge biannual press conference at the end of the month.

Turning to the left

Hollande’s new blitz on the airwaves should pay off with a boost in his job approval rating, according to experts.

“He should climb in polls because he is now talking directly to people for the first time since the beginning of his mandate,” Phlippe Moreau-Chevrolet, president of the French PR firm MCBG Conseil, told FRANCE 24. “Maybe he can gain five to 10 points.”

The president’s approval rating is hovering around 15%, after sinking to 13% in September 2014 – the lowest for any French head of state since the popularity figures have been recorded.

Moreau-Chevrolet’s pointed out that, in another first, Hollande, a Socialist, was turning towards his core constituency on the left.

"I was elected on the promise of change.I will change everything that blocks, that hinders, that brakes and hampers equality and progress. On this point, I will take any risk," Hollande, who has been slammed by critics on the left for allegedly acquiescing to austerity-minded European leaders, told France Inter radio.

Striking a decidedly combative tone, he also took the far-right National Front (FN) party to task. In response to a question about what can be done to counter the surging anti-immigration party, Hollande said:

“When we start to doubt ourselves, when we start questioning our own identity, when we start distrusting everything, we cannot win, including against extremists, those who want to destroy who we are, threaten our values, turn France into something it is not”.

French citizens will be called to the ballot box twice in 2015. Hollande's Socialist Party is forecast to suffer big losses in local elections in March, and again in December's regional vote.

A long way to go

Ironically, Hollande’s new effort to claim more screen time has drawn comparisons to his conservative rival and predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy.

Sarkozy, who returned to politics in September after a two-year hiatus, drew sharp rebukes as president between 2008 and 2012 for his constant appearances on television and even in the celebrity press.

In late November Sarkozy was picked to lead the main opposition Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, and speculation is now growing around his chances of reclaiming France’s presidency in 2017.

As Hollande seeks the public's support in a media landscape littered with potential landmines, communication experts like Moreau-Chevrolet says he still has much progress to make.

“Hollande has a likeability problem. He’s not addressing it, he’s not working on his communication skills. His voice gets out of hand, and you can see that he’s stressed,” Moreau-Chevrolet said.

“It’s a huge problem because Nicolas Sarkozy will come back if given the time, and he is good at it,” he added.

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