As Merkel Is Showered in Glory, Hollande Trudges Through Drizzle

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PARIS -- It has been a hard week to be François Hollande.

While he faced a new poll giving him the lowest approval rating of any French president in 20 years, newspapers were hailing Chancellor Angela Merkel as the undisputed leader not just of Germany but of all Europe after she nearly secured the first outright parliamentary majority there since 1957.

Meanwhile, glimmerings of a French economic recovery went unremarked, while Mr. Hollande's government -- ostensibly the antidote to Ms. Merkel's brand of austerity -- produced a budget that sought to spread the impact of government belt-tightening with incremental spending cuts and limited tax increases.

The coincidence of events was exceptional, but the week was typical in the sense that from almost the day Mr. Hollande took office, he has been in the unenviable position of disappointing supporters and opponents alike.

Far from having Ms. Merkel's ability to point to an economy that is Europe's strongest, Mr. Hollande inherited an economy that, while still Europe's second largest, is burdened by a large and expensive public sector and an electorate that has little interest in the kind of changes that free-market economists say are necessary.

His approach has been to tack between doing the bare minimum to move toward European Union requirements on budget deficits and preserving the public benefits that are in the tradition of his Socialist Party. Mr. Hollande believes he was elected to uphold that legacy and is fearful of a backlash if he tries to revamp it, analysts say.

Mr. Hollande was elected in 2012 as the antidote to Nicolas Sarkozy, whom many French loathed, finding him abrasive and frighteningly eager to reduce some of their cherished social programs and state institutions. Ultimately, Mr. Sarkozy backed away from a number of planned changes, said Françoise Fressoz, an editorial writer for Le Monde, the leading center-left French newspaper.

"As soon as they are elected, they have a tremendous fear of scaring people and of provoking big protests," she said of both men. "It's an obsession they all have."

The result, experts say, is that both French presidents presided over decline. "Growth and competitiveness have been declining over a pretty long period," said Guntram B. Wolff, director of Bruegel, a public policy research organization in Brussels. "There's a lot of skepticism that not a lot has been done."

Mr. Hollande had done somewhat better on foreign policy, winning praise for his intervention in Mali to stop the advance of Islamist rebels. But then in August, when he called for military strikes on Syria in the wake of allegations that its government had used chemical weapons, the public backed away. He was left isolated when Britain and Germany opposed a military response and the United States, after seeming to be on the same page, decided to pursue diplomacy instead.

"He deluded himself on Syria," Ms. Fressoz said. "He must have thought that it would give him a popularity rating like Mali did. It was a much more complicated conflict than Mali, because the goals of the war weren't clear at all. They weren't spelled out."

Mr. Hollande's political travails appeared in even sharper relief after the success of Ms. Merkel.

"Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, Chief of Europe" gushed Le Monde, despite its center-left reputation.

Pascal Perrineau, director of the Center for Political Research at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris, or Sciences Po, said, "Her triumph shows that she has the massive backing of the German people, whereas all opinion polls say that is far from the case for François Hollande." Analysts and economists said much of Mr. Hollande's problem might be rooted in an overall approach to the economy that does just enough to hold the budget scolds in Brussels at bay while being unable to satisfy the public appetite for a sense of forward thrust toward a more sustainable system of social protections.

Instead, meeting year-to-year targets is predicated on modest cuts and the uncertain hope that an eventual economic recovery will arrive with no need for deeper structural change. The French government projects little growth in 2013 -- just one-tenth of 1 percent, with a step up to nearly 1 percent in 2014.

There are a few encouraging signs for the government: unemployment figures released Wednesday showed the first drop in two years, in line with Mr. Hollande's promise during the summer.

Olli Rehn, the European Union's economic affairs commissioner, said the French budget showed "responsibility and prudence," but he still worried at the lack of plans for deeper changes.

The government released a pension proposal this month that offered incremental changes that would affect only the private sector, leaving untouched the large number of public employees.

"The pension reform just didn't get as far as it could have and should have," Mr. Wolff of Bruegel said. "A pension reform, if done credibly, gives a lot of fiscal space in the short run, and it's also something that you can logically explain to citizens: people are living 10 years longer than they were 20 or 30 years ago."

In the United States, the retirement age is now 67, while in France it is 62, and that is only because of an increase pushed through under Mr. Sarkozy.

However, from Mr. Hollande's viewpoint, the pension proposal worked: it kept his promise to his base to protect benefits, underlining the differences with his predecessor. Furthermore, the government is making cuts -- even if they seem small to Brussels -- and that seems to be as much risk as he wants to take.

Speaking to lawmakers this week, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault acknowledged what for even Mr. Hollande's supporters has become obvious. "Putting the public accounts back in order doesn't inspire anybody," he said.

Scott Sayare contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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