PARIS — On Thursday, French President François Hollande submitted to a lengthy televised interview for the first time in months. His mission: to convince those who elected him in 2012 — the young and the Socialists — not to abandon him in the presidential election next year.
Many already have. As the French unemployment rate hovers just over 10 percent, Hollande’s approval levels have plummeted to a historic low of 17 percent, according to a poll last month. Despite a momentary boost in popularity after the November terrorist attacks in Paris, the Socialist incumbent is now increasingly scorned — especially by those in his own camp.
Many in his party now view their leader as a traitor who has increasingly inched to the right in the wake of the November attacks. Hoping to field a different candidate in next year’s election, many leftist politicians and intellectuals have called for an open primary, a move with little political precedent in France.
Although whether this will happen remains unclear, Hollande’s low approval ratings have made such a primary more possible.
Those who want Hollande replaced have criticized his attempt to pass a constitutional amendment that would have permitted stripping French citizenship from dual citizens convicted of terrorism and proposed labor reforms that would weaken protections for French workers. Both were seen as affronts to the fundamental values of the French left as the party of social equality.
Hollande’s administration has been rife with internecine struggles that have paralleled the larger divisions outside the Elysee Palace. Christiane Taubira, Hollande’s justice minister, resigned over the proposed nationality law in January, and Emmanuel Macron, the economy minister, has even launched his own political movement, conspicuously declining to rule out a bid for the presidency in 2017.
For Aurélie Filippetti, Hollande’s former culture minister, the president has squandered the “national unity” he inherited in November, after terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State killed 130 and injured hundreds more in a series of coordinated attacks on a stadium, a concert hall and cafes across Paris.
“Unfortunately, he lost it with the déchéance and the loi de travail,” she said in an interview, referring to the nationality law and the labor reforms. “These were absolutely catastrophic, and they have completely fractured the country.”
Without a primary and, eventually, a different candidate, Filippetti said, “the left unfortunately risks Le Pen,” referring to Marine Le Pen, the outspoken leader of France’s far-right National Front party.
Patrick Weil, France’s preeminent historian of immigration, said the nationality law in particular was a point of no return for many who had previously supported Hollande. “A lot of people are saying it’s finished and that they’ll never vote for him again,” he said.
Initially perceived as a contradiction to the hallowed principle of equality before the law, the proposed constitutional amendment eventually came to represent little more than the political impotence of the sitting president. The measure was ultimately trounced in the French Parliament, and late last month even Hollande publicly withdrew his support for a provision that he had championed for months.
The president’s televised appeal to the nation Thursday coincided with the country’s largest popular protest in recent memory, the “Nuit Debout,” sometimes translated as “Standing Up at Night.” Centered in Paris’s Place de la Republique and carried out at other sites across France, the protest is a loosely organized movement of hundreds of thousands of young people and union members without a clear platform but with a definite sense of dissatisfaction.
To some extent, the movement is France’s answer to Occupy Wall Street — a group of predominately white youngsters suspicious of the government’s perceived embrace of neoliberal policies and workers outraged by the prospect of reforms.
On Monday, the government tried to appease these protesters, promising subsidies for recent graduates as they look for work. But even after police cleared their temporary structures in the Place de la Republique this past week, the protestors showed no signs of stopping.
For Gérard Grunberg, a prominent historian of French socialism based at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, this widespread dissatisfaction with the current government is fundamentally existential rather than political.
France, in his analysis, is a nation that has historically required its leaders to demonstrate the public strength — and even the ego — that Hollande forfeited in his campaign, when he promised to be a “normal president” distinct from the larger-than-life characters that have run the country since 1958, the dawn of the Fifth Republic.
If Hollande was never a Charles de Gaulle or even a François Mitterrand, this, for Grunberg, was his “first mistake.” “The spirit of the institution is that the president must be a real leader, able to decide,” said Grunberg. “The French do not want a ‘normal president.’ They want a leader.”
When he appeared in prime time Thursday evening, Hollande was greeted mostly with hostility. When he declared before millions of viewers that the French economy, the third largest in Europe, is “getting better,” one of the journalists conducting the interview interrupted with a simple question.
“Is that a joke?”