The President of the Republic is intelligent, good-humoured, and likeable, but it's hard to shake the feeling that his time in office has been disastrous
A few weeks ago I was invited to lunch with the President of the French Republic at the Elysée Palace. Given my previous public pronouncements both on his election — on a fraudulent prospectus — and his presidency — disastrous — I was understandably nervous about what to expect and why exactly I had been invited. We gathered across the road at the Hôtel de Marigny, a former Rothschild mansion now used by official guests of the French state. It was here, I was told, that General Gaddafi had pitched his tent when he came to Paris. It had seen better days. We entered the Elysée by a side door and made our way through the back corridors into the heart of the building. The contrast with 10 Downing Street could not be more marked. The latter is akin to the Tardis. One room opens out to another and another, and visitors quickly lose a sense of where they are. In the Elysée, all is monarchical splendour and republican order, uniformed staff wait upon your every move, and, when all are properly assembled in a room overlooking the impeccably manicured garden, the arrival of the president is announced.
The first thing that struck me was that François Hollande was shorter than I had anticipated. Why do we imagine that powerful men are also tall men? The second was that he has impeccable manners. Each of the six guests was greeted individually and with faultless courtesy. Rather ridiculously, I bowed. Once we were sat down together, Hollande made it clear that he wanted us to have an open discussion and, above all, that he wanted to know our views on the future of France. Of course, politeness (and, in some quarters, a fawning francophilia) got the better of us and I wonder what, if anything, the president got out of our conversation. We talked about unemployment in France, about France’s economic problems more generally, about the place of France in the world, and we even got onto Brexit. About the latter he seemed to have no strong views, apart from pointing out that General de Gaulle had always thought that the British would be difficult partners. One could only agree.
So, as our lunch came to an end and the Gevrey-Chambertin was finished, I was left simply with an impression of a man who was intelligent, inquiring, good-humoured, and, to be frank, very likeable. I could also understand how he could evoke such strong loyalty from his closest advisers.
We left the Elysée via the magnificent courtyard that opens out onto the Rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré and I spent the afternoon ambling through Paris, calling in to see friends along the way. The response was universally the same: “Nice man, rubbish president.” Fresh from my enjoyable lunch, I could not help but feel that there was some terrible injustice here. Agreed, the first couple of years were exactly what you would expect of a socialist government and presidency: money thrown after expensive election promises to no effect. But had not Hollande now appointed a reforming prime minister? Was not something being done to change France’s restrictive labour laws? And, above all, had he not responded with great dignity and decisiveness to the Paris attacks?
Nothing I said could shake the conviction that this was a failed president. And that is exactly what the opinion polls tell us. The latest polls show an approval rating of just 14 per cent. This beats all records by a very large margin. Translated into votes, it means that, if Hollande stands in the presidential elections next year, not only will he not make the second round (where the top two candidates go forward) but there is a chance that he might not even make third place. Those same polls tell us that, if there is one person likely to make it into the second ballot, it is Marine Le Pen.
The polls also tell us of a deep malaise afflicting French society. For example, a recent survey asked French electors what they most expected to see in the years to come. Top of the list (29 per cent) came “social explosion”. This was followed by “decline”, “inaction” and “decadence”. “Prosperity” came in well down the list at 5 per cent and “unity” came in at 3 per cent. The recent bout of strike action and protests that emptied petrol pumps and delayed trains and flights suggests that these fears might not be without foundation.
In such a context it is hard to believe that Hollande might turn things round. Yes, there are signs of growth in the economy and unemployment is beginning to nudge down. But surely this is a political mountain too high to climb. There is, however, one glimmer of hope for Hollande. If, somehow or other, he manages to get into the second ballot of the presidential election and his opponent is Marine Le Pen, then he might just find himself back in the Elysée next May. The chances are that this fundamentally decent man (and his party) will suffer a crushing and humiliating defeat: but we can be sure that Hollande, sustained by the conviction that things are getting better, will fight to the last.