Hollande makes surefooted start before assembly vote
PARIS (Reuters) - Socialist President Francois Hollande has defied critics who considered him an inexperienced lightweight by starting with a burst of globetrotting activity and standing up to Berlin and Washington on euro and foreign policy.
Placid and slow-paced by nature, Hollande has packed in visits to Berlin, Washington, Camp David, Chicago, Brussels and Kabul in his first 10 days in office, a timetable worthy of his hyperactive conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy.
The man Socialist Party leader and political rival Martine Aubry has described as spineless even challenged German Chancellor Angela Merkel by pushing for euro zone bonds and told NATO partners he would end France's Afghanistan mission early.
On Friday, Hollande made a flying visit to Afghanistan, dropping in on French troops stationed in the volatile Kapisa province and meeting President Hamid Karzai for the second time, after they met briefly in Chicago last week.
Earlier this week he met Morocco's King Mohammed in Paris, telephoned Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and held a flurry of bilaterals around an informal EU leaders summit in Brussels, where he pushed the divisive issue of euro bonds.
While most of the meetings have been on the presidential agenda for weeks, Hollande handled them with aplomb for a man with no ministerial experience, sounding firm but non combative.
His performance should score him points ahead of June's parliamentary election, when his Socialist Party, puffed up from its first presidential election victory since 1988, looks set to wrench seats from conservatives now riven with infighting.
"It would be churlish to give him anything but pretty high marks right now," said Nicholas Dungan, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington, who has close ties with France.
"He's doing his job and he's doing the international stuff really well. This is going to have an impact on the legislative election because if he shows he is carrying out his duties then the people will want to give him a mandate to govern."
SHORT GRACE PERIOD
Hollande has inherited a country deeply resentful of three years of economic gloom and an unemployment rate of almost 10 percent overall and nearing 22 percent for people under-25.
He can only get going on domestic policy efforts, such as a tax reform and job creation initiatives, once the cabinet is finalized after the two-round legislative vote on June 10 and 17, hence his focus on earning his diplomatic stripes.
Political commentators have mostly given the thumbs up to his decision to stand his ground with allies such as Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama while at the same time avoiding any serious confrontation.
"Hollande clearly believes that one of Sarkozy's fundamental errors was that he spoke too loudly and too often. He will underscore the contrast (between them) by speaking softly and - presumably - carrying a big stick," Harvard academic Arthur Goldhammer wrote in his French Politics blog.
"He held firm on his commitment to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan while speaking rather softly about the move so as not to ruffle too many feathers," he noted.
Even conservative opponents could find little to criticize.
Outgoing defense minister Gerard Longuet sniffed on Friday that he was glad to see Hollande using the same words, "orderly" and "coordinated" that he himself had used over the Afghan pullout, even if it was a pity he was ending the mission early.
In Brussels, Hollande quipped at a late-night news conference that other EU leaders had berated him much harder than Merkel during dinner talks for pushing the idea of metalized euro zone debt, which Berlin opposes for now.
"It's a different approach," and aide accompanying Hollande told reporters. "He is not in a confrontational mindset. He didn't arrive brandishing a Kalashnikov."
The presidential election on May 6 was tighter than pollsters predicted and was more of a reflection of an anti-Sarkozy sentiment than a swinging endorsement of Hollande, a lifelong party official with an economics background.
Yet Hollande endeared himself to many when he insisted on standing up in an open-topped car to wave to bystanders during a inauguration parade down the Champs Elysees in Paris despite a sudden rainstorm that drenched him to the skin.
In keeping with his Mr. Normal image, he shunned the presidential jet for his Brussels trip and took an express train with dozens of other commuters, prompting Le Monde cartoonist Plantu to sketch him leaving Afghanistan in an old Citroen car.
His honeymoon could be short, however, according to a popularity poll that indicated voters were impatient to see him implement policies such as public sector job creation.
The Ipsos survey found only 53 percent of respondents approved of Hollande's actions so far while 27 percent were critical. In comparison, Sarkozy enjoyed an approval rating of 64 percent two weeks after his 2007 election.
"The way things work in Brussels allows people to make grand promises then come back and say the talks were complicated. Just because he puts ideas on the table doesn't mean they'll go anywhere," said Christopher Bickerton, an associate professor of international relations at Sciences Po university.
"What he's doing this week is common currency for an incoming head of state. What the French people will judge him on in six months' time is what his government does to solve problems like unemployment which have not disappeared."
(Reporting By Catherine Bremer)
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