He’s the most unpopular French president in modern memory. He’s struggled to jumpstart his country’s sluggish economy. And on Tuesday French President Francois Hollande faced an assembled 500 journalists to present his plan for how to bring France — and his presidency — out of the doldrums.
Too bad no one found those plans particularly interesting. Last week, the magazine Closer published photographs of the French president entering an apartment belonging to the 41-year-old actress Julie Gayet. It’s resulted in a firestorm in France and has had severe repercussions for Hollande — both personal and political. Hollande’s long-time partner, Valerie Trierweiler, who in that capacity serves as France’s first lady, has been hospitalized with what has been called a "a severe case of blues." So when Hollande faced the cameras on Tuesday in a highly anticipated press conference, his plans for economic reform weren’t exactly at the top of the agenda.
After a 20 minute address in which Hollande laid out his plan to improve France’s business climate, Alain Barluet, the head of the Presidential Press Association, confronted Hollande with the question France’s chattering classes have been abuzz with: Is Valerie Trierweiler still France’s first lady?
"Everyone goes through difficult times in their personal lives. That is the case for us now. It is a painful moment," Hollande said. "But I have one principle, that this private affair be treated as private. This is not the time and place to comment."
With that flourish, Hollande managed to largely dismiss the issue. A few journalists returned to the issue over the course of the press conference, but in the tradition of French journalism, which has typically treated the private lives of their leaders as off-limits, the question of the president’s juicy affair with a gorgeous, younger actress remained largely untouched. Imagine a scene like that among the Washington press corps had it emerged that Barack had been stepping out on Michelle.
So far, Hollande has been able to hide behind the expectation of privacy typically afforded to French presidents, but the scandal has at the very least recalibrated expectations of the man. Once he was just a rotund socialist with a reputation for being rather boring; now, he’s seducing remarkably beautiful women who surely could do without the scandal of sleeping with the French president. (He does have the advantage, however, of sending his security detail to pick up croissants. Surely a winning move.)
More importantly, the scandal threatens to overshadow Hollande’s efforts to reinvent his presidency. France, the eurozone’s second-largest economy, has struggled to regain its footing in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and Hollande has so far proved powerless at addressing the economy’s most pressing issues, most notably its 12 percent unemployment rate.
The economic program proposed by Hollande is arguably more shocking than the fact that he has been riding a scooter to late night trysts. Hollande now wants to cut payroll taxes for French companies by as much as 30 billion euros and require companies to foot a smaller portion of the bill for France’s generous social services. Those proposals would shave some 5.4 percent off French employers’ costs. In return, Hollande expects employers to pledge that they will begin hiring more aggressively. It’s a scheme Hollande is marketing as a "responsibility pact."
All in all, it’s a humiliating climb down for France’s socialist prime minister. The package of economic reforms represents a turn toward the right for Hollande, and the left is unlikely to appreciate that development. Tuesday’s press conference was riddled with questions over what brand of socialism the president proclaims to practice.
Shunned by the left for abandoning their principles, rejected by his people for failing to stimulate the economy, and ridiculed in the press for getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar, Hollande is now a man in desperate need of good news. To make matters worse, Hollande has a hard deadline for resolving his family troubles. Early next month he will travel to Washington for a dinner date with the American first couple.
Presumably, he will need someone to accompany him.
(And if you haven’t gotten enough of Hollande’s sex life, here’s an online game in which you can guide a scooter-borne Hollande to his lover’s apartment.)