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France unhappy with the new normal

Going on holiday is a risky business when you are the president of France. When Nicolas Sarkozy borrowed the luxury yacht of a billionaire businessperson, his image never recovered. A string of flash holidays after that did not help, nor did Paris Match magazine obligingly airbrushing out the love-handles from an unflattering picture of him canoeing in white bermuda shorts in New Hampshire.

So when the new president, François Hollande, headed to the beach this month, he continued his political branding exercise as "President Normal".

First came orchestrated photographs of the president and his partner, Valerie Trierweiler, taking the train rather than a private jet. At the decidedly not-normal official presidential summer retreat at Fort Brégançon on the Côte d'Azur they went off to shake hands with "normal" sunbathers on the beach and sipped Perrier. Hollande's blue bermuda shorts and Trierweiler's black bikini were obligingly described as "normal" by celebrity magazines.

But the careful communications plan was nearly upset when the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné reported the arrival of a large order of cushions from an exclusive Spanish design firm. Spending money on luxury padding for the presidential backside when France was about to enter recession risked being dangerously off-message.

Mass lay-offs
Whatever the holiday PR, things are not looking sunny for Hollande. Opinion polls show that normal is not enough. August 14 marked Hollande's first 100 days in power, a symbolic moment. The latest Ifop poll, published in the right-wing newspaper Le Figaro, found that confidence in Hollande was sliding. Even if 57% of French people agreed he had kept his election promises – including the popular moves of lowering his salary, withdrawing French troops from Afghanistan, raising taxes on rich households and allowing people who began work young to retire at 60 – a majority of people were sceptical about whether he could resolve some of France's biggest problems: the huge public deficit, record 10% unemployment and the death of French industry. More than half of French people were unhappy with his actions since his election and 51% thought France was changing for the worse.

How to explain the dip in Hollande's ratings so soon after the election? There was never much room for a state of grace in a country struggling with mass lay-offs, unemployment, an uncompetitive labour market and an inability to pay for its public services and generous welfare state without borrowing from the markets. September is going to be a killer month – the government must somehow find €33-billion in tax rises and savings for next year's budget. Hollande's tax increases on the wealthy might be popular, but they are not enough to balance the books.

One problem for Hollande is vocabulary. He came to power on anti-austerity rhetoric, but must now decide how to sell the nation what many commentators predict will be an unavoidable austerity plan for France. The government dodges any mention of the dreaded A-word. But even the left-wing daily Libération is growing tired of this culture of "don't mention the war". The paper complained this week that, while the rest of Europe springs into action on the economic crisis, France is in a "strange torpor". The nation knows there must be some kind of collective belt-tightening; there is an impatience about not being told plainly what it will entail.

He might have had a quiet seaside 58th birthday celebration this weekend and he has not yet caught the train back to Paris, but Hollande's holiday is clearly over. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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