François Hollande, the most unpopular French president in living memory, demonstrated the perils of wanting to be known as the “normal” leader by subjecting himself to a surreal hour-long television and radio grilling to mark the second anniversary of his election.
He took questions from listeners, including a 61-year- old woman who asked him whether he could live on her €662 (£550) monthly pension. “No,” he replied.
Earlier, the BFM TV interviewer Jean-Jacques Bourdin took a leaf out of Jeremy Paxman’s book to accuse the President of “amateurism” and of conducting a “reckless” private life which had cheapened the presidency. “You talk about [economic] recovery,” said Bourdin, “where is it?”
The Socialist President, who admitted to “regrets”, batted away the criticism and vowed to speed up economic reforms. He said that he should be judged on results “at the end of my mandate” in 2017.
Mr Hollande has identified his main priority as reversing the growth in unemployment, which stands at 9.8 per cent, and acknowledged that he had failed to fulfil a pledge to do so by the end of last year. He repeated that unless the number of jobless came down, he would not stand for a second term. “How can I run again if I fail on that?” he said.
Asked by Bourdin whether he would be “disappointed” if he had voted for himself, Mr Hollande replied that he would be “impatient, not disappointed”. He sought to place the blame on his centre-right predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, who had left France “on the verge of bankruptcy” and with industrial competitiveness in decline. After facing “the worst crisis in the eurozone”, finances had now been stabilised, he said.
Having appointed a popular new Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, he admitted: “Now we need to move even faster.”
Mr Hollande also fielded questions from disgruntled voters who called in to complain about their personal situation, including one who turned out to be a councillor from the centre-right UMP. But the exercise was widely mocked on Twitter, with one commentator saying: “Hello Mr Hollande, I need a part for my Ikea wardrobe, have you got a size 4 screw?”
The political opposition was scathing. Henri Guaino, a former aide to Mr Sarkozy, said: “Should the President of the Republic really be communicating like this?” National Front leader Marine Le Pen described the interview as a “pointless exercise”.
Meanwhile, just as the President seemed to have put his turbulent private life behind him – he was reported last week to have separated from the actress Julie Gayet after news of their relationship caused him to split with Valérie Trierweiler. Ms Trierweiler popped up on French radio yesterday to wish him well and say he should be judged “after five years” and not after his first two in office.