Notebook

July 15, 2014 5:30 pm

Hollande in search of that regal touch

The French president is revamping his image in an effort to win voters, writes Hugh Carnegy
French President Francois Hollande gestures after the traditional television interview at the Elysee Palace in Paris, following the Bastille Day military parade, on July 14, 2014. AFP PHOTO / POOL / THIBAULT CAMUSTHIBAULT CAMUS/AFP/Getty Images©AFP

If François Hollande was having difficulty seeing his way out of his troubles he has no excuse now.

The French president has sparked a frisson by changing his spectacles, abandoning the frameless style he favoured for years for a sober, black-framed pair that sit more prominently on his face.

An attempt to look more statesmanlike, perhaps, as he urgently seeks ways to overhaul his dismal approval ratings.

As always seems the way with Mr Hollande, the image makeover did not go without a hitch. It soon emerged that the frames were made in Denmark. So much for the “Made in France” campaign much vaunted by Arnaud Montebourg, leftwing economy minister and champion of a new “economic patriotism”.

The change of specs followed a shake-up of Mr Hollande’s PR team at the Elysée Palace after a government reshuffle saw Manuel Valls, the Spanish-born reformist, installed as prime minister.

A big effort is now under way to rebuild the president’s standing with voters who have made him the most unpopular leader since the second world war, with approval ratings sinking to below 20 per cent earlier this year.

The combative Mr Valls has stepped into the front line, leading Mr Hollande’s new policy of cutting taxes and public spending. That saves the president from some of the awkward questions of why he spent the first two years in office mainly raising taxes and letting France’s public spending rise to record levels.

He has instead concentrated more on ceremonial events where he can burnish his presidential credentials. That this year has seen the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the first world war and the 70th anniversary of the 1944 Normandy landings is like manna from heaven.

The Bastille day celebrations earlier this week were used as a launchpad for a series of high-profile commemorations of the 1914-18 war due in the coming months.

Despite the grim record of carnage in the trenches, La Grande Guerre evokes a sense of pride in France about a period when the country stood together in the face of a monumental test of resolve – a spirit Mr Hollande’s spin doctors would dearly like to associate him with.

The Elysée makes no secret that it believes he already gained a lift from events in June to mark the Normandy landings, when Mr Hollande welcomed world leaders including Barack Obama, the US president, and Queen Elizabeth II.

The president, who remains remarkably cheerful and optimistic in private, according to visitors, joked about the unusual experience of being cheered when he and the Queen drove up the Champs Elysées together during her state visit.

Lately Mr Hollande has more often had to put up with whistles and jeers when appearing in public. His traditional Bastille day television interview on Monday – more promises of tax cuts – drew a mostly derisory critique from the French media. “Hollande still sees a rosy future,” was the ironic headline in Le Figaro.

In recent weeks, his poll numbers have at least stabilised. But no one is in any doubt about who the cheers were for when he appeared with Her Majesty. “Can we swap him for the Queen?” one disillusioned Parisian asked a visitor from London.

Back on track

“Welcome Home” trumpeted the sports daily L’Equipe when the Tour de France landed back on French soil this month after a tumultuous send-off in England.

Banx cartoon

It was emblematic of a distinct sense of unease on this side of the channel about the explosion of popularity of cycling in the UK – and growing British prowess in the sport.

Unprecedented Tour wins by British riders Sir Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and Chris Froome last year were mostly graciously received in France, which has not had a winner since 1985. But there were disapproving mutterings about overzealous fans during the three UK stages this summer. Clearly the Brits didn’t know how to behave properly on the roadside.

Yorkshire and London are now a fast-fading memory as what is turning into an epic tour winds its way towards the Alps. Froome is out injured and only two British riders remain in the race.

More to the point, there are four Frenchmen among the top 10 leaders, one of whom wore the yellow jersey on Bastille day. “Remarquable,” rejoiced L’Equipe.

hugh.carnegy@ft.com

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