The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The reason French President Hollande won’t seek reelection, in one chart

French President François Hollande leaves the stage after a speech aboard the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier. (Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)

The announcement on Thursday that French President François Hollande would not seek a second term in office next year wasn't all that surprising to those who paid close attention to French politics and voters' perception of Hollande in recent months.

Hollande was never expected to become the most popular head of state in the nation's recent history. But the extent to which French people dislike him has surprised even his political opponents. Only 4 percent of those surveyed in a poll released in November said they thought he 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.

But it's somewhat familiar ground for Hollande by now. 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 terrorist 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 terrorist 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, for instance, is still supported by the majority of the public — despite allowing waves of refugees into the country in 2015 in a decision that provoked strong criticism from some of her conservative allies. In fact, her approval ratings are on the rise, again.

So, 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, and 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 increased 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 “multidimensional dissatisfaction” among the French.

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

This post was originally published July 5. It was updated Dec 1. 

Read more: 

French President Hollande won’t seek reelection