Hollande to fight for his political life in TV interview

Thu Mar 28, 2013 9:00am EDT

* TV appearance designed to keep public behind him

* High unemployment, stagnant growth hit his ratings

* Backtracking on economic pledges causing loss of faith

By Catherine Bremer

PARIS, March 28 (Reuters) - With approval ratings and most of his economic pledges in tatters, French President Francois Hollande will try to convince a disillusioned nation on primetime TV on Thursday to keep faith in him to restore the economy to health.

Hollande will be grilled in a 45-minute interview on France 2 television, his first such appearance in several months, in a studio whose backdrop and lighting have been carefully prepared by his media team to create a sombre mood.

Ten months into his term, the Socialist leader is battling to keep the public behind him. He has irked left-wingers with pro-market measures to foster growth and angered business leaders with high taxes, while failing to stem surging unemployment.

His ratings have slid faster than those of any other French president to as low as 22 percent as he has backtracked on growth and deficit targets. Few believe he can meet a promise to bring down unemployment, now at 10.6 percent, by year-end.

The TV interview is part of a public relations push, including a two-day, hand-shaking tour by Hollande in southeast France this month. The trip backfired when hecklers asked what had become of campaign pledges and one was carted off by police.

Hollande's biggest promise to his left-wing voter base was to impose a 75 percent "super tax" on millionaires, but the plan has been scuppered by France's Constitutional Court.

Analysts say Hollande would do well to spell out how the bleak economic outlook is forcing him to deviate from his election manifesto as he has made sweeping spending cuts and imposed higher taxes.

"Hollande's problem is that he talks all the time, but we don't hear him," political commentator Alain Duhamel told RTL radio. "If he comes out and really explains what he is doing ... then he could change the climate, little by little."

He needs, among other things, to ready the nation for a pension overhaul to curb a deepening deficit in the system, despite having opposed his conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy's reform to lift the retirement age to 62.

The left-wing Liberation daily's front page headline on Thursday was "L'Oral de Rattrapage" ("Oral Resit"), suggesting the interview would be Hollande's second chance to pass an examination he has thus far flunked.

The weekly Le Point wrote that Hollande's challenge "is not to master communication but to show that he can govern".

VEERING OFF COURSE

Data this week showed households' purchasing power fell in late 2012 for the first time since 1984 and that jobless claims rose for a 22nd straight month in February to reach the highest level since June 1997, amid a stream of industrial layoffs.

National statistics institute INSEE sees unemployment rising to 10.8 percent this quarter and 11 percent in the second, making Hollande's insistence that he can reverse the trend by year-end sound increasingly hollow.

A mass robbery of a suburban commuter train into Paris this month by a gang of masked teenagers, who swiped wallets and mobile phones from dozens of passengers in a few minutes, was the latest incident to suggest the crisis is driving up crime.

With consumer spending stifled and company investment choked, the economy is set for a flat year, and Hollande is stuck between adding to an already ambitious plan of public spending cuts or hiking taxes to fix the public deficit.

In a sign of how far things are veering off course, Hollande has ordered 5 billion euros ($6.4 billion) in cuts at government ministries next year, on top of 10 billion already sought, and has admitted he will need an extra year to bring the public deficit below a ceiling of 3 percent of economic output.

"Francois Hollande was not elected to lead the French people down an endless path of austerity," Socialist Party lawmaker Pascal Cherki grumbled in parliament this week.

A survey by pollster CSA published on Thursday found that just 22 percent of respondents rated Hollande as a "good" president, while 51 percent rated him as "bad".

An LH2 poll for left-leaning weekly Le Nouvel Observateur gave him a 27 percent approval rating and found 81 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with his efforts to fight unemployment.

In a sign of growing disillusionment, a far-right National Front candidate knocked out a Socialist Party rival to come a strong second to a centre-right victor in a national assembly by-election in a region near Paris this month.

Government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said Hollande would use Thursday to lay out the steps for economic recovery. ($1 = 0.7824 euros) (Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander; editing by Jane Baird)

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