Election clock ticking for France's fumbling Hollande

Election clock ticking for France's fumbling Hollande

Paris (AFP) - After a blistering week in which French President Francois Hollande made a humiliating U-turn on anti-terror measures and faced massive protests over labour reforms, his prospects for re-election next year look increasingly bleak.

The 61-year-old Socialist leader has staked his presidency on a pledge to rein in France's stubbornly-high unemployment, but his proposed remedy has sparked waves of often violent demonstrations.

Hundreds of thousands of workers and students braved heavy rains across the country on Thursday to protest against the reforms, seen by opponents as too pro-business.

The protests, which are set to continue this month, came a day after Hollande announced he was scrapping an initiative to strip convicted terrorists of French nationality.

In absence of an agreement between the two houses of parliament, the president was forced to humiliatingly abandon a measure he had hoped would burnish his credentials as tough on terror in the wake of November's jihadist attacks on Paris.

Thursday's polls showed the approval rating of the most unpopular president in modern French history sinking to a new low of 15 percent. Another poll on Wednesday suggested he would not even reach the second-round run-off in the May 2017 election.

"The president's popularity has fallen continuously for the past two years, but in the past few weeks there has been an acceleration in the disaffection within his own camp," said political scientist Bruno Jeanbart of the Opinionway polling institute.

- Re-election unlikely -

Only two in five of those who voted for Hollande in the first round of the 2012 vote that brought him to power still support him, Jeanbart said, describing his chance of re-election as "virtually non-existent".

In the face of robust objections from both opposition and Socialist backbenchers, Hollande was forced to abandon constitutional changes that would have allowed dual nationals convicted of terrorism to be stripped of their French citizenship.

Polls suggested most of the country supported the plan, notably after it emerged that six of the 10 known Paris attackers had French passports.

But critics argued it would create two categories of French citizens, a sensitive issue in a country where millions hold two passports.

It even sparked the resignation of justice minister Christiane Taubira, herself a native of French Guiana.

Hollande's hopes for a signature achievement on the economic front have also been shattered.

Two weeks ago, the government bowed to pressure from the street and the Socialist Party's left flank, watering down labour reform proposals so that they apply only to large firms.

But diehard labour and student unions are piling on the pressure for the government to scrap the bill altogether, calling two more protests on April 5 and April 9.

That will set the stage for a major televised appearance on April 14 when Hollande will face the press and public, when he is expected to tout a few economic green shoots -- notably that unemployment may dip below the psychological bar of 10 percent at the end of 2016.

The figure bears little meaning however for young people, for whom joblessness is estimated at around 25 percent.

- 'Beginning of the end' -

Friday's editorials pulled no punches, with the right-leaning daily Le Figaro seeing "The beginning of the end" for Hollande, while the Paris daily Le Parisien ran the mocking headline "Yet he still believes".

But a source in Hollande's inner circle said he was not ready to throw in the towel, having overcome earlier setbacks since becoming France's first Socialist president in 17 years.

Instead, he would be "more on the offensive" and push ahead with the labour reforms, the aide said.

"The mobilisation against them is significant but not something that will make us back down," the source said.

Despite Hollande's woes, the Socialist Party was resisting calls to hold a primary to choose its candidate for 2017, Jeanbart said.

"It's not clear that (another candidate) would do better than Hollande. He could even do worse," he said.

A first-round loss for the Socialist candidate would set up a second-round contest between a rightwing candidate and far-right leader Marine Le Pen of the National Front.

That would be a repeat of the scenario in 2002 when Jacques Chirac defeated Le Pen's father Jean-Marie after the Socialist Lionel Jospin fell at the first hurdle.

Many on the left said they "held their noses" to vote for Chirac over Le Pen.