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Marine Le Pen: The Front National president insists that only a strong leader and a strong state can protect France from its many enemies

Since his election as president of the French Republic in May 2012 I have written twice in Standpoint about François Hollande. On each occasion I expressed serious reservations about both the man and the policies he intended to pursue. Friends in France responded in two ways. Some said that I was being unfair, that Hollande was a man of ability and determination who would see things through. Others insisted that, on the contrary, I was being far too generous, that I had understated Hollande's all-too-obvious weaknesses and deficiencies. Recent evidence suggests that it was the latter who were correct. 

François Hollande is now the most unpopular president of the Fifth Republic, with an approval rating last month of just 21 per cent. Attempts to reassert his authority before the French electorate have unfailingly backfired. Even members of his own party have taken to booing and whistling when Hollande's name is mentioned. 

Not only this, but his government looks to be disintegrating. Hollande's prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, has quickly achieved the status of a near-invisible man. Ministers frequently and publicly disagree with each other. Measures are announced, only to be withdrawn days later after the latest round of popular protests. The impression is one of confusion and panic.

Beneath this lies a deeper intellectual and ideological disarray. From the days of François Mitterrand onwards, Hollande's Socialist Party has clung to the ideal of Europe as the means through which socialism could be attained. The euro crisis and a policy of austerity imposed upon a reluctant France by Brussels have brought this vision crashing to the ground. The result, as the political scientist Gérard Grunberg commented in Le Monde, is that the Socialist Party has no clear views about any issue of real importance. 

If Hollande's difficulties with Breton lorry drivers and protesting school children have received press coverage in Britain, relatively little attention has been given to the travails of the UMP, the party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy. No sooner was Sarkozy's defeat declared than he announced he was retiring from politics. What followed was a bitter and unseemly squabble between the rival candidates to replace him as leader of the UMP. 

If these divisions have now been papered over, they have served only to hasten speculation that Sarkozy will soon return to the political frontline. Certainly the polls indicate that he retains significant support among the electorate. Nevertheless, the liberal and conservative wings of his party look to be irreconcilably divided. Above all, the UMP demonstrates on an almost daily basis that it does not know how to respond to the rise in popularity of Marine Le Pen's Front National.

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