The two faces of Hollande: decisive abroad, ditherer at home

The two faces of Hollande: decisive abroad, ditherer at home
The two faces of Hollande: decisive abroad, ditherer at home

Paris (AFP) - A decisive action-taker ready to send French troops into harm's way. A hapless ditherer who backtracks at the first sign of dissent.

These are the two public faces of Socialist French President Francois Hollande, who in his first full year in office seems to have suffered from a split personality -- strong abroad, weak at home.

Whether it's been on Iran, Syria, Mali or the Central African Republic, on foreign policy Hollande has put France at the forefront with fierce diplomacy and the willingness to project military force abroad.

But on the domestic front Hollande's image has suffered from a series of backdowns and gaffes that have seen his approval rating fall to the lowest level of any modern French leader.

"We have a real dichotomy in Francois Hollande," said Frederic Dabi of polling firm IFOP.

"He was firm, decisive and determined on Mali, Syria and Iran. But on domestic policy he's been criticised as a hesitant president, who does not have a firm hand, who doesn't make decisions and who backs down."

Hollande's first major foreign policy decision, to send French troops to oust Islamist militants who had seized control of swathes of Mali, was widely praised and gave him a temporary boost in popularity.

He was equally ready to commit French forces to action on Syria, promising Paris would take part in US-led military action against President Bashar al-Assad's regime after a chemical weapons attack in August.

Washington eventually backed down from air strikes after the regime agreed to dismantle its chemical arsenal, but Paris had marked its place as the new hawk on the international scene.

A few months later France took a hard line during talks on Iran's nuclear programme, and now Paris has announced plans to send troops into Africa again.

About 1,000 French soldiers are expected to be deployed for a mission to help restore order in the Central African Republic, a former French colony that has been torn by strife since a coup in March.

Hollande is also to play host to some 40 African leaders in Paris on Friday and Saturday, in the biggest international summit hosted by France since he took office.

The contrast with Hollande's wavering at home is clear from two recent issues, experts said.

First was his handling of a new tax on heavy trucks that had been due to take effect on January 1 but was delayed after sometimes violent protests by farmers and food workers in Brittany.

Despite being supported by many Socialists and their Green party coalition allies, the so-called "ecotax" was quickly put off when opposition began to grow.

Hollande has also faced widespread criticism for his decision to meddle in a deportation order that sent a 15-year-old Roma schoolgirl, Leonarda Dibrani, and her family back to Kosovo.

The order triggered outrage and student protests but Hollande's intervention -- offering the girl the chance to return to France without her family -- was seen as a weak compromise and criticised as incoherent and inhumane.

Hollande "is always looking to find compromises, while what the country expects are decisions," said Stephane Rozes, the head of the CAP think tank.

"The 'Hollande method' is not going over well, because compromise is seen as surrender and hesitation is seen as an inability to decide," Dabi said.

So why is Hollande one leader abroad and another at home?

Experts said the nature of the French presidential system is partly responsible.

On foreign policy, the French president traditionally has a free hand to act as he sees fit in the best interests of France.

Diplomacy and foreign military action are "reserved areas" for the president, where the French leader "is under practically no control and can do as he wants", said political analyst Alain Duhamel.

"He does not need to take into account the different currents of the Socialist Party, he is 'France'," said Dominique Moisi of the French Institute of International Relations.

"His hands are as tied on the domestic front as they are free on the international front," Duhamel said.

Unfortunately for Hollande, experts said, foreign policy successes rarely translate into long-term popularity at home.

With French growth stagnating and unemployment hitting record highs, Hollande will need economic growth -- not diplomatic victories -- if he hopes to crawl out of the basement of public opinion.