November 13, 2012 7:40 pm

Hollande moves to reassure doubters

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France’s President François Hollande, battling low poll ratings, appealed to the public on Tuesday to judge his government at the end of his five-year mandate, saying it had already put in place fundamental reforms to deal with the “serious situation” facing the economy.

Speaking at his first full press conference at the Elysée palace since his election six months ago, the Socialist president aimed to dispel doubts about his leadership – criticised as lacking dynamism and experience – by seeking to demonstrate an active reform agenda and a compelling vision for France as it teeters on the brink of economic recession.

“Decline is not our destiny,” he said in the gilded Salles des Fêtes where General Charles de Gaulle initiated the first of such presidential press conferences.

In an appearance lasting two-and-a-half hours, Mr Hollande emphasised the importance of the eurozone’s second-biggest economy’s to the success of the single currency bloc by saying a weakened France would mean a weakened Europe.

Mr Hollande is battling to regain the political initiative amid mounting dissent on the left of his party and criticism from the rightwing opposition over allegedly ineffectual government in a time of economic crisis.

He defended his six-month record during the televised event, saying: “Show me a government that has arrived as quickly at the two big decisions of the public debt and of industrial [policy].”

“The recovery will take time but I believe we can succeed,” he said. “I want young people to be living better in five years’ time.” He singled out the reduction of unemployment – which has reached a 13-year high of 10 per cent – as the target towards which “all my strategy and politics is mobilised”.

Mr Hollande also appealed to employer groups and trade unions in upcoming talks to strike an agreement on German-style changes to labour market regulation. In exchange for limiting job cuts, employers are seeking relaxation of the rigid regime on plant closures, redundancy conditions, wages and working time.

The president made scarcely any mention of Germany in his scripted remarks. Mr Hollande has distanced himself from the relationship forged by Mr Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel, which was close enough to be dubbed “Merkozy”.

Asked about the Franco-Germany relationship, he admitted: “There are differences,” but said the two leaders “have a common responsibility to promote Europe” and said the two were able to speak frankly and find compromises.

According to a Bank of France survey published on Friday, the French economy will contract by 0.1 per cent in the three months to the end of December, following a similar third-quarter contraction.

Christian Noyer, the central bank governor, last week criticised Mr Hollande’s budget deficit-reduction plan, in a rare political intervention, as overly reliant on tax increases which hurt economic growth more than spending reductions.

Mr Hollande’s budget, involving €20bn of tax increases and €10bn in spending cuts provoked the ire of big business, which has argued that the president has done little to fulfil his key presidential campaign promise of stimulating economic growth.

The president last week won some praise from business with his announcement of a €20bn tax break for companies to address France’s sliding industrial competitiveness.

The measure will be funded with yet-to-be specified spending cuts and a rise in environmental taxes and value added tax – breaking a campaign pledge – which has provoked outcry from the far-left and ecologists in Mr Hollande’s coalition government.

Mr Hollande came into office promising to be a “normal” president as a counterpoint to his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy’s hyperactivism. He styled himself during the conference as “a responsible president but not one who decides everything”.

“Hollande in search of presidential stature,” ran a headline in the left-leaning Le Monde newspaper before the press conference. “Can Hollande dispel the doubts?” asked the rightwing Le Figaro. “The end of the trial period,” splashed Liberation, the leftwing daily on its front page, of the president’s first six months.

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