French President Francois Hollande, bogged down by revelations of an affair with an actress, must keep his country focused on the economy rather than on his personal life, pollsters and political analysts said.
Above all, they said, Hollande must avoid making the mistakes committed by his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, who gave the public too many details about his divorce and remarriage.
“French people make a clear distinction between the man and his job,” Frederic Dabi, director of Paris-based polling company Ifop, said in an interview. “But they must not have the feeling he’s distracted from rescuing the economy.”
Celebrity magazine Closer ran a photo spread in its Jan. 10 edition purportedly showing Hollande, 59, as he arrived on a scooter at an apartment around the corner from his office for a liaison with actress Julie Gayet, 41. The revelation came just before a Jan. 14 news conference billed as heralding a major shift in Hollande’s economic policy toward lower taxes and looser regulation to boost jobs.
“Hollande is finally giving a clear line on his economic plans,” Gerard Grunberg, an analyst at Paris’s Institute of Political Sciences, said in an interview. “He must do the same, discreetly, on his private life: decide and move forward.”
The president said at his press conference that his relationship with his official companion, Valerie Trierweiler, was going through a troubled patch, and that he wanted to be left to resolve their problems in private. He said he’d clear up whether she was still France’s first lady before a Feb. 11 state visit to the U.S.
His strategy has worked so far. His approval rating has gained since news of the affair broke, rising to 31 percent from 27 percent at the start of the month, according to a BVA poll for France Inter radio and L’Express magazine published yesterday. A Jan. 15 Ifop poll showed that 77 percent of respondents believed Hollande’s affair was a private matter.
“We don’t need a new episode in this series, just for it to come to an end,” Ifop’s Dabi said. “If he doesn’t want this crisis to turn into a vaudeville show, he must act decisively and end it elegantly.”
Trierweiler, 48, was hospitalized Jan. 10. She left the hospital Jan. 18 and is now at an official residence near Versailles. Hollande said yesterday during a visit to the Netherlands that she’s “doing better” and declined to provide further details.
Hollande has maintained every meeting on his agenda since the news broke. Last week, he held a cabinet meeting, met Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, hosted a New Year’s reception for ambassadors, and gave his New Year’s greeting in his former electoral district in southwest France. He’ll go to the Vatican Jan. 24 and then to Turkey and Britain next week, before the state visit to Washington.
While Trierweiler recuperates, Hollande is working on the details of his plan to rekindle France’s sluggish economy.
His “Responsibility Pact” is a bid to cut 30 billion euros ($40 billion) from business taxes and squeeze government spending to cap unemployment that’s at a 16-year high. In doing so, he’s burnished his image of a “social democrat” and taken on the left-wing of his party.
“The affairs have covered up what is an important shift in policy,” said Laurent Dubois, a professor at the Institute of Political Sciences. “For a socialist president to say that economic growth comes from companies and not from the state is a major shift.”
In a speech to business and union leaders today, Hollande said he may increase a payroll tax credit due to take effect this year, and said he wants to align France’s company levies with those of its neighbors by 2020.
He said nothing about his private life.
“Hollande chose a smart strategy: unlike Sarkozy, the hyper-president who exposed his personal life, he keeps to a tough line: stay private,” Antonio Barroso, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London, said in an interview. “During his campaign he made the promise to be exemplary and he failed. But he’s trying to stick to privacy.”
By contrast, Sarkozy made no secret of his breakup with his wife Cecilia a few months after he entered the Elysee presidential palace. Less than three months later, he authorized a photo shoot at Disneyland with ex-model Carla Bruni, whom he married a few weeks later.
Hollande could use this episode to redefine his image.
“He wants to show he’s tough and heading himself out of a personal crisis and the country out of the economic crisis,” Dabi said. “The timing is right, his image as a leader is very damaged.”
An Ifop survey published Jan. 20 showed that while 45 percent of the French people considered Hollande as “sympathetic,” only 13 percent said he has authority and 22 percent that he’s competent.
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