The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Francois Hollande is more popular than ever. So why is his party still losing?

French President Francois Hollande makes a statement at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Nov. 13 following a series of attacks. (Christelle Alix /Elysee Palace via European Pressphoto Agency)
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François Hollande has not been a particularly lucky president so far. Saturday might have been a high point for the troubled politician: Under his leadership, delegates from all over the world agreed to a new climate treaty to stop global warming.

One day later, however, things started to look far less encouraging for Hollande. In the second round of regional elections, his party won five regions, while former president Nicolas Sarkozy's party secured seven. In the first round a week ago, Hollande's Socialist Party had even come in a distant third behind Sarkozy's Republicans and the right-wing National Front, which emerged as the winner. On Sunday, the Socialists and the Republicans agreed to back a single candidate in order to defeat the National Front in regions where it was predicted to win.

Although the strategy worked and the National Front did not secure power over a single region, Hollande was nevertheless one of the biggest losers of Sunday's elections.

Many had considered the vote a test run for the presidential election in 2017. Hollande currently has record-high approval ratings of about 50 percent — up from 20 percent only a few months ago — but his popularity has not generated significant support for his party.

His handling of the terror attacks in Paris in November has been credited for his rising approval ratings, but it remains unclear whether he will be able to use that momentum to avert the looming threat of a right-wing party gaining power in one of Europe's most populous countries. His critics say he has largely failed to deliver in terms of economic growth and social reforms, which National Front voters appear to care most about, as my colleague Michael Birnbaum observed:

National Front leader Marine Le Pen, considered by some to be Europe’s Donald Trump, tailored her message to disaffected voters who feel stuck in the mire of their nation’s listless economy. With a charismatic personality that contrasts with the introverted President François Hollande, Le Pen was powering into the top rung of French politics even before a year bookended by terrorist attacks in Paris and dominated by a refugee crisis in between.

On Sunday, Hollande and Sarkozy both benefited from high turnout, but whether so many will vote again in two years could be a decisive factor. For the Social Democrats, much will depend on their ability to recruit their disappointed former voters. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, a Socialist, might have further complicated matters by recently warning of a "civil war" if the National Front gains power. Such declarations could make it difficult for Hollande to recruit conservative voters and easier for the National Front to promote its goals.

The French may trust Hollande at the moment, but to voters that hardly makes up for years of perceived failures to change the country's course.

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