Indiscreet Hollande upsets closest allies

French trade unionists protest in Florange ahead of a visit by President François Hollande © Reuters

Trade unions snubbed President François Hollande on a visit to a depressed industrial town in north-eastern France on Monday, providing a potent symbol of the left’s disenchantment with a socialist leader struggling to gather support for a re-election bid.

Seeking to defend his record in office, Mr Hollande went to Florange, a steel town in Moselle he vowed to rescue in a landmark campaign speech in 2012.

“Florange is not a relic, it is the future and sign that we have won our battle,” Mr Hollande insisted.

But many on the centre-left are now asking whether their deeply unpopular leader is a relic. The angry reaction of workers’ representatives underscored the rift between Mr Hollande and his electoral base less than six months before the presidential elections. His socialist colleagues are seething after the publication last week of a fly-on-the-wall account of his time in the Elysée Palace in which Mr Hollande wishes for “the liquidation” of the Socialist party.

Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, secretary-general of the Socialist party and a Hollande loyalist, said he was “surprised” and “disoriented” by the confessions, admitting that the president did “not facilitate” his re-election plans.

“Hollande is deluding himself if he thinks he can revive his chances for re-election by going to Florange. Working class voters are lost to him,” Laurent Bouvet, a Versailles university professor, says. “He’s losing support within his own camp every day.”

Mr Hollande had seized on the struggles of the steelmaking plant, owned by ArcelorMittal, to rally support among industrial workers during his 2012 campaign. He accused his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy of failing to stop deindustrialisation and vowed to force companies by law to find buyers for the factories they intended to close.

But a year later, the plant’s blast furnaces, located a few kilometres away in Hayanges, were shut down and in 2014, Hayanges elected a far-right National Front mayor.

The president argued in the town on Monday that he had met all his pledges, saying that none of the 600 workers affected by the closures had been fired. ArcelorMittal had also invested more than €170m in other activities on the site, he added.

Yet disappointment is still raw in the Moselle region and is echoed across France. There have been 300 more plant shutdowns than openings since Mr Hollande became president, according to data compiled by consulting firm Trendeo. Earlier this month, the government placed a €600m order for Alstom high-speed trains it did not immediately need to prevent the closure of the company’s iconic plant in Belfort.

The trip to Florange was part of a plan to win back leftwing voters before Mr Hollande launches his re-election campaign later this year. But following the uproar caused by the book, in which he lashes out at his party, opponents, footballers and judges, the president has been scrambling to stem growing criticism from some of his closest allies.

In the book “A President Shouldn’t Say That …”, which is based on 61 interviews with two Le Monde journalists over four years, Mr Hollande suggested shutting down the party he ran for a decade before becoming president. “There must be a hara-kiri,” he is quoted as saying.

He also takes a jab at Mr Sarkozy, calling him “the little de Gaulle” and described French footballers as “ill-manned brats” who needed exercise their brains. His most controversial comments, directed at judges, described as “cowards”, forced him to issue a humiliating public apology on Friday.

Manuel Valls, prime minister, implicitly criticised his boss: “We need modesty,” he said during a visit to Canada. Others followed suit. “The president shouldn’t make so many confessions,” Claude Bartolone, the Socialist president of the National Assembly, said. “The position requires a certain discretion.”

The French leader has said he would make a decision to seek a second term in December, banking that by then, more upbeat economic news will give his legitimacy a boost. But unemployment is still nearing 10 per cent of the workforce and his approval ratings are still lagging in the low teens, a record low in France’s modern history.

“The latest controversy makes a Hollande candidacy increasingly difficult,” Prof Bouvet said.

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