Amid speculation over 2017 vote, Hollande remains France’s master of suspense
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French President François Hollande will deliver a key speech in Paris on Thursday, but is likely once again to disappoint those eager to know if he will run for a second term in the April 2017 elections.
Hollande is expected to address the subjects of “democracy and terrorism”, less than two months after a Bastille Day truck attack that killed 86 people in the Mediterranean city of Nice and the slaughter of a Catholic priest by two young men claiming allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group.
For the Socialist president, it will be an opportunity to retake – at least briefly – the country’s political stage, which has been dominated since the end of summer by the simmering rivalry between right-wing presidential hopefuls Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé, and by the resignation of France’s economy minister Emmanuel Macron ahead of his own likely bid for the Elysée Palace.
The speech will be Hollande’s chance to outline his vision for France as it continues to nurse the physical and emotional scars inflicted by terrorists. Hollande will likely speak about his government’s determination to fight armed extremists while preserving essential liberties, as he has done in countless speeches since the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks.
He is also expected to wade into the debate over secularism, or the separation between the state and religion. Local bans on burkinis, full-coverage swimsuits used by a handful of Muslim women on French beaches, recently sparked legal battles and grabbed international headlines.
But many people will tune into the speech in the hope that Hollande will finally declare whether he will stand for re-election, with less than eight months left before the first round of the presidential poll on April 23. Will Hollande’s stated vision for France amount to empty words from a lame-duck leader, or provide the bedrock on which to build a new presidential campaign?
An unusual ultimatum
Hollande, 62, has become France’s master of suspense when it comes to the 2017 presidential race.
In May 2014, Hollande famously declared that he would not seek a second term if he failed to cut the unemployment rate and steer the country back to economic growth. Unsurprisingly, he did not peg the decision to a precise figure or a deadline.
Recent production and unemployment figures in France may point to a very modest economic recovery, but Hollande’s dismal job approval rating has certainly not turned a corner. Only around 14 percent of voters say they have a favourable view of the president, and a new poll on Wednesday showed Holland would come in fourth place in the presidential ballot, behind mutinous ex-minister Macron.
Journalists have repeatedly questioned Hollande on his intention to seek five more years in office since his bold ultimatum, but he has provided few clues one way or the other. In May and again in August he told reporters that he would announce his final decision “at the end of the year”, which has since been widely understood as December.
A close ally of Hollande's, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters this week that there would be no big announcement in Thursday’s speech, saying the president had “no intention of speeding up the calendar”.
Another unnamed Socialist Party member said Hollande may nevertheless pull the trigger in mid-October, timing the announcement to steal the spotlight from the opposition Les Républicains presidential primaries.
Three months ago the Socialist Party committed to organising presidential primaries in January 2017, whether or not Hollande had launched a re-election bid by that time. The decision was made after increasingly loud calls from the disaffected left-wing branch of the ruling party and Hollande’s abysmal ratings.
While the prospect of a Socialist primary was first seen as a shameful blow to Hollande – it would be unprecedented for an incumbent French president to run in a primary – many now think that it could actually work to his advantage.
In June, French political analyst Gérard Grunberg pointed out that, while he is in poor standing among the general electorate, Hollande enjoys wider support among Socialist Party members than potential party rivals like Prime Minister Manuel Valls and ex-industry minister Arnaud Montebourg.
Considering the Socialist Party’s internal divisions, there is a good chance that Hollande would win the left-wing primary and thus “help give his candidacy a legitimacy that, so far, it is sorely lacking”, Grunberg said.
And a Hollande re-election bid seems increasingly likely as the clock ticks down. Another survey published this week by ifop showed that while up to 85 percent of people in France say they do not want Hollande to run for president again next year, 74 percent believe that he will.