Hollande's charm campaign starts early

French President Francois Hollande has been criss-crossing the country and pressing the flesh, including at Le Mans this month where he posed for a selfie with a spectator (above).
French President Francois Hollande has been criss-crossing the country and pressing the flesh, including at Le Mans this month where he posed for a selfie with a spectator (above).PHOTOS: REUTERS
An appearance by supposed lover, actress Julie Gayet, at a wartime memorial last week (above) set tongues wagging that she was being gradually introduced as the new first lady ahead of the 2017 presidential polls
An appearance by supposed lover, actress Julie Gayet, at a wartime memorial last week (above) set tongues wagging that she was being gradually introduced as the new first lady ahead of the 2017 presidential pollsPHOTOS: REUTERS

PARIS - His ratings are still in the doldrums and the economy is still stagnant, yet French President Francois Hollande looks ever more determined to run for re-election two years from now.

An appearance by his supposed lover, actress Julie Gayet, at a wartime memorial ceremony last week set tongues wagging that she was being gradually introduced as France's new first lady ahead of the 2017 presidential polls.

Mr Hollande has refused to be drawn on the nature of their relationship, which was dramatically revealed last year by a magazine. The report destroyed his relationship with journalist Valerie Trierweiler, who later published a damaging kiss-and-tell book about her time in the Elysee Palace.

Nor will Mr Hollande officially admit to being in campaign mode, saying: "I am not in a race which would not yet make any sense."

His schedule suggests otherwise; he is spending a busy few weeks criss-crossing the country and pressing the flesh.

"A handshake, a selfie, a kiss - that's three votes," said an adviser at one recent appearance.

Mr Hollande, 60, also looks to be buttering up voters with policy promises.

Having campaigned strongly on an anti-banking, anti-austerity message in 2012, he confused many supporters by instantly reversing course once in office, raising taxes on the middle classes and reining in public deficits.

He is now trying to spin those efforts as the first step towards reducing taxes in the future. "The French have perfectly well understood that today's deficits can be tomorrow's taxes," he has said.

He is hoping that meagre signs of growth in the economy - predicted at 1 to 1.2 per cent this year - will afford him a few new sops to pensioners and state employees, as well as a drop in taxes for "nine million households".

"We get the impression the President is playing Father Christmas," scoffed Mr Laurent Wauquiez, from the right-wing opposition.

The path looks daunting for the man with the worst popularity ratings in modern French history.

The latest poll shows only 22 per cent of voters are satisfied with his performance and only 2 per cent very satisfied.

Jobless rates remain the biggest obstacle - stubbornly stuck at 10 per cent overall and a devastating 24 per cent for young people.

His primary opponent on the right is Mr Nicolas Sarkozy, who returned to frontline politics last year for the first time since losing to Mr Hollande in 2012.

Mr Sarkozy regularly derides the President's "mediocrity", but looks equally embattled himself after a barrage of corruption scandals and a multitude of challengers within his own camp.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2015, with the headline 'Hollande's charm campaign starts early'. Print Edition | Subscribe