Beleaguered Hollande to reach out to nation on TV

PARIS Thu Mar 28, 2013 5:49pm EDT

France's President Francois Hollande (R) and his companion Valerie Trierweiler (C) attend the annual Representative Council of France's Jewish Associations (CRIF) dinner at the Pavillon d'Armenonville in Paris March 20, 2013. REUTERS/Joel Saget/Pool

France's President Francois Hollande (R) and his companion Valerie Trierweiler (C) attend the annual Representative Council of France's Jewish Associations (CRIF) dinner at the Pavillon d'Armenonville in Paris March 20, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Joel Saget/Pool

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PARIS (Reuters) - With his approval ratings and most of his economic pledges in tatters, French President Francois Hollande will try to convince a disillusioned nation on television 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 prepared by his media team to create a somber mood.

The careful stage-managing risked being spoiled, however, by news hours before the interview that French actress Julie Gayet had filed a legal complaint for breach of privacy over rumors on the Internet alleging a liaison with the president.

The prosecutor's office told Reuters that Gayet, 40, filed a complaint against "persons unknown" on March 18 over the rumors, which have been circulating for some weeks.

A lawyer for Gayet did not respond to phone calls and Hollande's office declined to comment.

Ten months into his term, the Socialist is battling to keep the public behind him. He has irked left-wingers with pro-market measures to foster growth, angered business leaders with high taxes and failed to stem a rise in unemployment to 10.6 percent.

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 the unemployment rate by the end of the year.

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 top promise to his left-wing base, a 75 percent income tax on millionaires, has been crushed by the Constitutional Court.

Analysts say he would do well to spell out how the bleak economic outlook is forcing him to deviate from his election manifesto with sweeping spending cuts and 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 prepare the nation for a pension reform to curb a growing deficit in the system, despite having opposed a 2010 move to lift the retirement age to 62.

The left-wing Liberation daily's front page bellowed: "L'Oral de Rattrapage" ("Oral Resit"), suggesting the interview would be Hollande's second chance to pass a flunked examination.

The weekly Le Point said his 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 11 percent by mid-year, making Hollande's insistence that he can reverse the trend by year-end sound increasingly hollow.

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 billions of euros in extra cuts at government ministries and pushed a key deficit target back by a year.

"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.

Despite economic gloom being foremost in voters' minds, the news of Gayet's complaint could not have landed at a worst time as it threw a spotlight on chatter thus far confined to Twitter and blog sites. French media quoted Gayet's lawyer as saying the rumors of a romantic relationship were baseless.

Hollande, 58, has already suffered media speculation over the state of his relationship with first lady Valerie Trierweiler after a tweet she sent last year hinted at tensions over his former partner, Socialist politician Segolene Royal.

Hollande and Trierweiler first met in the late 1980s when Trierweiler was working as a magazine journalist and Hollande was with Royal. The pair are unmarried but have been in a committed relationship for several years.

A survey by pollster CSA published on Thursday found that just 22 percent of respondents rated Hollande as a "good" president and 51 percent rated him as "bad". An LH2 poll gave him a 27 percent approval rating and found 81 percent of people were unhappy with his efforts on unemployment.

(Additional reporting by Chine Labbe, Elizabeth Pineau and Ingrid Melander, edited by Richard Meares)

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