Hollande asks French voters to judge him in five years
PARIS (Reuters) - President Francois Hollande, grappling a sickly economy and dismal ratings, vowed to make France more competitive and urged voters to judge him on his long-term success in reviving growth and jobs, not on short-term mood swings.
In his first formal news conference after six months in office, the Socialist leader asked to be measured by his ability over five years to revitalize the country's ailing industry and halt a relentless rise in unemployment.
He brushed aside talk of strains with Germany over his economic policies, after German government sources told Reuters Berlin is concerned that measures announced last week to bolster industrial competitiveness do not go far enough.
"We speak to each other frankly, the chancellor (Angela Merkel) and I, but we don't teach each other lessons because Franco-German relations aren't based on lessons, except perhaps on the lessons of history," Hollande said.
"We in France more than others have to prove our seriousness and our competitiveness, more than Germany, and that's what we are doing. And Germany... has to prove its solidarity, which is not easy when a country has made such an effort to become what it is today."
In the only policy announcement of a marathon 143-minute performance, Hollande said France recognized a new opposition coalition formed to topple President Bashar al-Assad as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and would consider arming the rebels if they form a government in waiting.
Stressing that low French bond yields showed that markets believed his economic policies were credible, he said a move to fund tax rebates for companies with small rises in sales tax should bolster output while preserving consumer spending.
"Decline is not our destiny," he said, shrugging off a sharp fall in his approval rating.
"I can understand the doubts that have been expressed. The only valid question in my eyes is not the state of public opinion today but the state of France in five years' time."
The formal press conference, televised live from the ornate banqueting hall of the Elysee Palace, where General Charles de Gaulle once regaled the international media with lofty rhetoric and spirited repartee, was intended to given disoriented voters a sense of presidential authority and direction.
The president was shown striding to the lectern with the full cabinet seated to one side.
Hollande said he would not be swayed from his goal of reviving the economy by gloomy public opinion, as polls give him approval ratings as low as 36 percent, down from above 60 percent when he took power in May.
"The recovery will take time but I believe we can succeed. I want young people to be living better in five years' time."
Reviving the stalled economy and sticking to promises to bring the deficit down to 3 percent of gross domestic product next year, is proving the principal test for Hollande, France's first Socialist president in 17 years.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault will explain Hollande's policies in a meeting in Berlin on Thursday with Merkel and tell her that France will reform "at its own pace", according to a government advisor.
Asked about relations with Germany, Hollande said: "The chancellor and I have one common responsibility: to move Europe forward. We do not tell each other what to do."
Earlier, talks on closer cooperation between ailing French and German car manufacturers PSA Peugeot Citroen and Opel, a unit of General Motors, broke down amid misgivings about the French carmaker's finances and government-backed bailout, according to people familiar with the matter.
Hollande repeatedly described himself as "responsible", distancing himself from the "Mr. Normal" moniker that he adopted in contrast to his hyperactive conservative predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, but which critics now use to paint him as soft.
"My goal is simple: to revive growth and reduce unemployment and those are the only criteria I want to be judged on," he said.
A survey published on Tuesday by marketing group Promise Consulting found public gloom rising after a brief hiatus in early 2012, with 67 percent of respondents saying they were pessimistic about France versus 56 percent in March.
Hollande's challenge is to reassure financial markets worried about France's strained public finances while avoiding sweeping austerity cuts that would hit households already struggling with 10.2 percent unemployment and stagnant purchasing power.
He said he would not take the risk of departing from the goal of bringing the deficit down to 3 percent of GDP next year, and it was up to European countries to discuss collectively any change in the pace of deficit reduction.
In a bid to help embattled companies adjust to changing economic cycles, Hollande has asked trade unions and employers to reach an agreement by the end of the year on measures to making hiring and firing more flexible while also offering guarantees against sweeping layoffs.
He urged both sides on Tuesday to strike a "historic compromise" on changes to labor contracts, but said in the event that talks fail the government will legislate regardless.