PARIS – Somber, genuinely moved and attuned to the mood of the people, President Francois Hollande is set for a popularity boost after getting rare top marks from local media and analysts for his handling of France’s worst attacks in decades. But there is no guarantee this will last.
Leading over 1 million people and dozens of world leaders in Paris to mourn victims of attackers who were swiftly tracked down and killed, he answered two recurrent criticisms leveled against him: weak leadership and distance from voters.
A survey by OpinionWay pollsters, carried out for the most part after the Jan. 7 massacre’ of 12 people at Charlie Hebdo, showed his approval rating at 25 percent — a rise of 4 points for the most unpopular president in polling history.
Even more striking is the praise from the conservative daily Le Figaro, which is more used to slamming him day in, day out.
“His hand did not shake, he took the right decisions,” it wrote. “Who would have thought the Fifth Republic’s most unpopular and criticised president would rise to this historic occasion?”
In a country where many lament the loss of major-power status, the unprecedented march through Paris of over 40 world leaders arm-in-arm seemed proof that France still counts.
A photo of Hollande embracing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, her forehead resting on his cheek, was a sign that he might finally be forging closer ties with Europe’s most powerful leader.
After a year when publicity over his complicated private life cost him the sympathy of many voters, Hollande’s emotional hugging of friends and relatives of the victims, broadcast on live TV, was praised by commentators and applauded by crowds.
“He is re-building a connection with the French. This puts him back in a situation where he is really viewed as president,” said Jean-Daniel Levy of Harris Interactive pollsters. “The fact he is seen representing national unity will reassure people.”
But history, both in France and elsewhere, shows Hollande will need more than the past few days for his standing to be lifted long and far enough to help him push through reforms or envisage winning a second term in 2017.
The fall in Hollande’s ratings stopped when he launched a military operation against Islamist rebels in Mali in early 2013, but this was just a brief pause before the drop resumed, Ifop analyst Jerome Fourquet recalled.
This time the boost might last longer, Fourquet said, given the depth of the reaction to last week’s attacks that killed 17 people, including cartoonists at the satirical newspaper, police officers and hostages at a Jewish supermarket.
But Fourquet noted that approval ratings of then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani did not stay at the high that followed his handling of the Sept. 11 2001, attack on the city, and he failed to win the Republican party nomination for the 2008 U.S. presidential election.
Analysts also said much would depend on how the security situation evolves. If more attacks were to follow, even on a smaller scale, Hollande and his government could be seen as having failed and would ultimately lose popularity.
Fourquet suggested the Paris attacks could at least dampen any opposition within his Socialist party to tougher action on tackling terrorism, and said any move to beef up security laws is likely to get cross-party backing now.
But he doubted this would help Hollande to speed through new deregulation and labor market reforms that the left of his party has said it will try to block in parliament in the next few weeks.
“Yes, mechanically Hollande will likely get a few points (in approval ratings),” Fourquet said. “But what will he do with that?”