In France, a Beleaguered President Defends His Tenure

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PARIS -- Faced with a deepening economic malaise and mounting public dissatisfaction with his leadership, President François Hollande of France said on Thursday that he would "go on the offensive," promising new measures to reduce unemployment and harmonize economic policies among the countries using the euro.

Mr. Hollande warned that the protracted downturn facing France and other euro zone countries "threatens the very identity of Europe."

"If Europe does not advance, it will fall, or even be erased from the world map," Mr. Hollande said. "It is my duty to help bring Europe out of this state of lethargy and fear."

A year into his presidency, Mr. Hollande has been criticized as lacking a coherent agenda to revive the limping French economy, which tipped back into recession this week. Recent surveys show that a large majority of voters do not feel that their lives have improved under his stewardship, and that about half are unsatisfied with the pace of the economic and social welfare changes he has promised.

Mr. Hollande made the remarks at a news conference that lasted more than two and a half hours. Dressed in a dark suit and perspiring at times, he defended his performance by rattling off a list of achievements, including changes in the banking sector and the labor market. And he renewed his pledge to "do everything" to reverse the rise in French unemployment, currently hovering at around 11 percent, a postwar high.

He acknowledged that his efforts had not found strong public approval yet. "What I wanted in this first year was not to be popular," Mr. Hollande said. "It was to take the decisions that seemed to me to be in the best interests of France."

The faltering economy, a series of embarrassing scandals involving members of his government and some public sniping among his ministers have combined to raise questions about whether he can maintain discipline in his cabinet, a mix of centrists, leftists and environmentalists that some say is unwieldy. Pressure for a reshuffle of the cabinet has been increasing lately.

"There should only be one line within the government," the president said. "Every minister has a responsibility to support and execute the policies that I have articulated."

In opening remarks that lasted 45 minutes, Mr. Hollande told reporters that he planned a series of economic initiatives, starting with a plan to create a central "economic government" for the 17 euro countries, with monthly meetings, a "real president" and the authority to issue bonds. Its duties would include harmonizing members' policies on taxation and social welfare and coordinating the fight against tax fraud.

He also spoke of new measures to fight youth unemployment and to create a European "energy community" to coordinate a transition to renewable energy sources.

Such calls have met with a frosty response in Germany and some other member states.

"What we need above all is a common understanding of Europe -- and there unfortunately isn't one yet -- of what actually makes us strong and where growth comes from," the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said at a policy forum in Berlin on Thursday, The Associated Press reported.

Mr. Hollande paid homage to French soldiers who took part in the military intervention in Mali to fend off a takeover by militants, saying that they had "made France loved in all of Africa." This week, France pledged 280 million euros, or $361 million, over the next two years to a multinational effort to help rebuild Mali.

Polls in France show wide support for the intervention in Mali. French forces there are expected to begin returning home in the summer, giving way to a United Nations peacekeeping force composed largely of African soldiers.

Maïa de la Baume contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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