French President Francois Hollande waits to welcome Austria's Chancellor Christian Kern during the Western Balkans summit at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, July 4, 2016. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)

French President François Hollande was never expected to become the most popular head of state in the nation's recent history. But the extent to which his countrymen dislike him has surprised even his political opponents.

Nearly 90 percent of the French disapprove of their president, a poll has revealed. Only 12 percent of those surveyed by polling institute TNS Sofres said they thought Hollande was doing a good job. It is the worst score of any French president since such surveys were first conducted more than three decades ago.

It's somewhat familiar ground for Hollande. In 2013, Hollande was called the "most unpopular president in recent French history" for the first time, following approval ratings of 26 percent. His predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, had never fallen below the 30 percent benchmark.

Since then, however, Hollande has set new negative records. His popularity briefly rose above 30 percent following the Paris terror attacks in January 2015, which targeted the staff of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket. Hollande was also praised by some for his reaction to the Paris attacks in November 2015. But it was a bump that quickly disappeared.


A continuously high unemployment rate and more terror attacks have rattled the country and its Socialist Party president. Those who are now most disappointed by Hollande's performance are middle-class employees older than 35 and younger than 49.

Hollande was criticized early in his presidency for appearing indecisive. But the president insisted that he was trying to make consensus-based decisions to unite a country that has faced a growing rift between the left and the right-wing supporter base of Marine Le Pen's National Front. France holds elections next April and May.

Measured by how other world leaders have performed in polls, Hollande is far behind. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is still supported by 54 percent of the public — despite allowing waves of refugees into the country in 2015 in a decision which provoked strong criticism from some of her conservative allies.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might be the West's most popular leader at the moment, with an approval rating of 63 percent.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is said to have the support of 83 percent of his people. My colleague Michael Birnbaum observed earlier this year that Putin's approval ratings do not necessarily reflect agreement with his policies. Many people "drew a sharp line between their support for Putin and their feelings about Russia’s direction," he wrote.

Elsewhere, the popularity of leaders is more closely connected to their actual political performance. Brazilian interim President Michel Temer — who has been in power since May — fares worse than Hollande at the moment.


But why are the French so unhappy with their president?

His opponents would mostly point at Hollande's allegedly unsuccessful tenure: The country's economy has only gradually recovered from recession, but many of the nation's problems remain unresolved.

Interestingly, though, Hollande's popularity strongly recovered amid the darkest hours after attacks.

The same effect has been observed elsewhere, including in the United States, where George W. Bush's popularity rose rapidly after the 9/11 attacks. Bush's approval rating rose from 51 percent before the attacks to 86 percent only days after.

What might contribute to Hollande's low ratings is a general tendency among some French to lean toward pessimism. Claudia Senik, a professor at the Paris School of Economics, recently explained that a pessimistic outlook might be more inherent to France than to other countries where optimism is more highly valued -- leading to a "multi-dimensional dissatisfaction" among French.

In other words: Despite a common perception that François Hollande might not be the best president in France's history, he might have higher approval ratings if he were the leader of a different country.

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