Editorial: François Hollande: plus ça change...

Hollande's boring, but honest image helped him win the presidency, but it didn't take long for misgivings to surface

François Hollande won the French presidency last May for two main reasons.

First, because his campaign pitch of integrity and social justice struck a chord with an electorate unconvinced by the free-market reforms of his predecessor and hard pressed by the financial crisis. And, second, because he came across as boring, but honest, unlike Nicolas Sarkozy.

It did not take long for misgivings to surface. Mr Hollande’s move to raise the top rate of tax to 75 per cent not only provoked some high-profile departures – most notably that of the film star Gérard Depardieu – but was subsequently declared unconstitutional. And even that double defeat pales into insignificance set beside his government’s woes of the past week.

First, his Budget Minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, was forced to resign after admitting that he lied when denying claims that he held a Swiss bank account. He now faces tax fraud charges. Then the former Socialist Party treasurer, Jean-Jacques Augier – responsible for managing Mr Hollande’s election funds – was revealed as having undeclared business interests in the Cayman Islands.

Mr Hollande responded to Mr Cahuzac’s resignation with a pledge that in future all ministers will have to make full declarations about their personal finances. There was already widespread scepticism about whether that was either feasible or sufficient when the stories about Mr Augier broke. Mr Augier has denied doing anything illegal, but Mr Hollande’s promises of government integrity are sounding hollow.

With unemployment remaining stubbornly above 10 per cent, economic growth at a standstill and the popularity that attended the French military intervention in Mali wearing off, a rash of financial scandals is the last thing the beleaguered French President needs. He might console himself, for the time being, with the thought that his plight could be considerably worse, were the Gaullist opposition not divided and Mr Sarkozy not under investigation in a party funding scandal of his own.

Mr Hollande’s ratings, however, suggest an electorate already disenchanted with the president it elected just 10 months ago – with discouraging prospects for the rest of his presidency. Not only, barring accidents, does Mr Hollande have another four years in office. His unpopularity cannot but place him at a disadvantage as he tries to persuade French voters of the need for austerity as a precondition for sound growth in the future.

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