PARIS (Reuters) - Four months into Francois Hollande’s presidency, tumbling ratings, cabinet squabbles and talk of inertia have forced him to rethink a soft-touch leadership style that has raised doubts he has the clout to revive France’s economy.
The new Socialist head of state has, aides say, reluctantly decided he needs to appear a bit more like his predecessor Nicholas Sarkozy, after contrasting himself with the conservative’s pushy manner to help him win power in May.
On Sunday he will seek to convey a vigorous new policy agenda in a primetime television interview of the kind Sarkozy used to favor, anxious to turn around a slump in his approval ratings to 44 percent in August from above 60 percent in May.
Having won the May election with 51.6 percent of the vote, Hollande’s ratings have slid below 50 percent in less than half the time it took Sarkozy to fall from favor.
“He’s realized he needs to speed things up. He was working on the basis that people were fed up of Sarkozy’s hyperactivity but now he’s trying to find a balance between the two styles,” a source close to the president told Reuters.
Presidential advisers have explained to Hollande that people had grown so used to Sarkozy informing them of his government’s every move that his hands-off approach has left them wondering if he is asleep at the wheel.
Though he has a solid Socialist majority in parliament and can look forward to an unchallenged five-year term, he needs to heal splits in his party on everything from spending cuts and deeper European integration to immigration policy.
He must also rally the public, business leaders and trade unions behind measures to balance the state budget and provide jobs for the one in ten French people out of work.
It was unemployment at 13-year highs along with Sarkozy’s flashy manner that drove voters to elect Hollande, a scooter-riding Socialist who did his own grocery shopping.
His “Change is Now” slogan created high expectations, and a poll in late August showed 72 percent of people think he is moving too slowly.
“Sarkozy created this hunger for action and it’s become like a drug. It’s not easy for someone like Hollande to change the way he is, but he does need to show a greater presence,” said the source close to Hollande.
Sparring between the finance and budget ministers and the more left-leaning industry minister over whether to cut the growth outlook has fanned concern Hollande is too conciliatory to hold his team to order.
He was little known outside France when he won the May election, and foreign investors are still trying to figure out whether he is a closet reformer or a permanent waverer.
Inside France, where Hollande quietly led the Socialist Party for a decade, minds are being made up more quickly.
Business leaders have lambasted what they see as an anti-corporate bias and at least one has visited him privately to warn that his plans to raise company taxes to plump up state coffers will suffocate commerce.
The budget he is preparing to unveil this month is likely to duck painful spending cuts as Hollande tries to keep popular support behind him. He is under growing pressure from outside to overhaul labor laws and charges that make firms uncompetitive and pull France into line with German demands for fiscal and politician integration in Europe to overcome its debt crisis.
“The crisis is so big that Hollande has no choice but to deliver,” said Laurent Binet, who has published a book based on his experience accompanying Hollande on his election campaign.
Binet, who is not an Hollande supporter, believes his jovial exterior and apparent indifference to criticism masks a steely determination and shrewd political skills.
“He is a master of political timing,” Binet told Reuters, noting Hollande successfully changed tempo during his campaign, responding to criticism of him as “soft” by proposing an income tax on the rich of 75 percent that grabbed voters’ attention.
“He’s seen that the tack he’s taken makes him look hesitant and indecisive so he’s adjusting his style,” Binet said.
Hollande is now looking at watering down the 75 percent tax rate plan following angry criticism from the business sector and talk of high earners quitting France.
In his effort to revive his popularity, Hollande has rushed through a temporary cut in fuel duty and raised an allowance for tax-free savings accounts. Sunday’s TV appearance will seek to show him in control of his youthful cabinet.
It will also try to restore his solemn image, damaged by a clutch of books this month which raked over animosity between his companion Valerie Trierweiler and former partner Segolene Royal - the former a journalist, the latter a senior Socialist politician.
Five years of Sarkozy’s frenetic media presence, and the glitz of his ex-supermodel wife, accustomed French voters to a politics of personality, said Francois Kalfon, a polling analyst for the Socialists who has known Hollande for years.
“Sarkozy’s presidency changed things for good. Even if the political timetable will never match the media timetable, this phenomenon of public opinion dictating things is permanent.”
The covers of French news magazines this week back that up.
“Wake up Hollande, there’s a fire,” blared the weekly Marianne. L‘Express asked: “What if Sarkozy’s way was right?”
Reporting by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Philippa Fletcher