Grilled by unhappy voters, France's Hollande says has regrets

PARIS Tue May 6, 2014 6:29am EDT

1 of 5. France's President Francois Hollande (L) is welcomed by French businessman Alain Weill, President of NextRadioTV group (BFM, RMC and BFMTV), prior to an interview with BFM television journalist in Paris May 6, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Thibault Camus/Pool

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PARIS (Reuters) - France's most unpopular president in decades said on Tuesday he had some regrets and understood voters had doubts at a time of crisis - and pledged to respond by accelerating reforms to put the country back on track.

Launching a fresh bid to reconnect with disgruntled voters on the second anniversary of his election, Francois Hollande allowed himself to be questioned in a rare one-hour live radio interview by listeners angry with high unemployment and taxes.

The Socialist leader, whose popularity has fallen to record lows over higher taxes, rampant unemployment and squabbles among ministers, told the show broadcast on RMC radio and BFM TV that he understood voters had doubts when times were tough. He asked to be judged at the end of his five-year mandate.

"I do have regrets. I could have gone faster, I could have done more to alert the French people about how serious the situation was. I could have reacted more quickly on some debates," he said in a rare display of regret for a president in office.

Hollande broke yet another unpopularity record in a CSA poll published late on Monday, which showed only one in five voters trust him, the lowest score on record for a French leader.

But he said he had his eye on making a difference by the end of his term in 2017 and not on opinion polls.

When asked if he had lost touch with voters and acted like an amateur, he brushed aside the accusation, which stemmed from a widespread voter feeling that his two first years in power were ones of drift and uncertainty over issues ranging from taxation to immigration.

"You say there has been some amateurism over the past two years," he said. "Amateurism when I got involved in pulling the euro zone out of its crisis? Amateurism when I decided to intervene in Mali when no one else did and terrorism was on the path to win there?

"I have had to deal with the euro zone's worst crisis ever ... do you think you do that by walking the streets and shaking people's hands?"

Having failed to fulfill his pledge to bring unemployment down by the end of 2013, Hollande said that remained his number one priority.

"NOTHING TO LOSE"

Hollande's listeners included pensioners, unemployed people and business owners. They complained about tax hikes and high unemployment and asked him to do much more to help them.

A 61-year-old woman asked him if he could live on her pension of 662 euros ($920) a month: he said he could not, that it would be tough for anyone and that he was trying to help pensioners.

In probably one of the most unexpected questions to be put to a French president, a stay-at-home mum angry with school reform asked if his objective was to make France a world champion in Zumba dance and the first exporter of macramé knotted fabric. He simply asked her not to ridicule extra-curricular activities.

Hollande, who made no comment about Monday's European Union warning that France would miss its 2015 budget deficit target unless it made rapid policy adjustments, vowed to do more.

"I hear the anger, I am not deaf. We must act even faster," he said. "I have nothing to lose."

(Additional reporting by Mark John and Sophie Louet Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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