PARIS — La rentrée -- the time of the year that France's workers, students, and politicians come back from their summer holidays -- is a time to take stock, and François Hollande returned from his first presidential vacation at a former fort on the French Riviera in a political free fall.
Cascading approval ratings and a relentless media barrage suggesting that he is an absentee captain of an aimless ship in storm led to a strange spectacle: a president in power for barely 100 days went on France's most popular television show, live and in prime-time, and told his interviewer that, "The government hasn't wasted any time and it has acted rapidly." Historically, freshly elected French presidents -- who, until 2002, enjoyed leisurely seven-year terms -- have rarely felt the need to justify the pace of their activity, especially in their first months in power.
While it is clear that France's presidential metabolism has sped up in the 21st century, particularly during the hyperkinetic just-ended term of Nicolas Sarkozy, the main reason that Hollande needs to make such assurances now is a testament to the scale of the buzzkill France endured in August. After 15 consecutive months of rising unemployment, the nation crossed a grim psychological barrier: surpassing 3 million people on the dole. That's a rate of 10.2 percent unemployment. During the interview, Hollande announced that the government was lowering its anemic economic growth forecast for 2013 from 1.2 percent down to .8 percent. (Soon after, a separate survey of 18 economists resulted in an even lower forecast of just .3 percent for 2013.) Worse, the government forecast for growth this year is zero.
Meanwhile, the existential eurocrisis continues, with no decisive endpoint in sight. And it emerged in the French press on Sept. 8 that Bernard Arnault, who Forbes ranks as the 4th richest man on Earth with a net worth of around $41 billion, has applied for citizenship in Belgium. Arnault insists that France will remain his tax residence, but many people doubt this, given that Belgium is particularly welcoming to the wealthy, and that Hollande has promised to institute a "super-tax" on France's highest revenue earners. In the United States, some people who are rich (or who think they might one day get rich) might have heart attacks over Hollande's new super-tax that will gobble up 75 percent of an individual's annual income that is over 1 million euros ($1.28 million). And most of the first million will be taxed at a 45 percent rate.
If, after obtaining his Belgian citizenship, Arnault has a change of heart about where he wants to pay his taxes, the loss of revenue for the French state could be enormous. His taxes are private, as are his deductions, but he reportedly earns an eight-figure salary as the head of the luxury group LVMH, in addition to the return on his many investments. The question in places like London, Luxembourg, and Geneva is now: how many other rich tax refugees should they expect?
As political honeymoons go, Hollande's has been stunningly short. In May, 62 percent of the French showered approval on him. Barely three months later, that number dropped to 48 percent. And that has been in the absence of any sort of scandal. In the last month alone, he saw a drop of 9 percent in the percentage of French people who believe that he is capable of keeping his (still-popular) campaign pledges, from 57 percent down to 48 percent. Anxiety, meanwhile, has surged. In May, 34 percent of the French described themselves as "rather unsatisfied" (or worse) with Hollande. By early September, the disgruntled rate leapt to 59 percent.
In an effort to restore the faith that voters placed in him in the spring, Hollande insisted in the television interview that he has a clear vision for his presidential term, but that he will need time, patience, and called for the nation to come together in the face of an array of epic challenges. "I know where I am going. I say to the French: I am taking responsibility," he said.
"The current economic slowdown makes it even more difficult to achieve this objective," Hollande continued, "but it makes success even more crucial."
Specifically, he insisted that within a year France will "invert the curve" of rising unemployment; that meaningful economic growth will return in 2014; and that by 2017 France will -- and this would be a small miracle -- eliminate the last traces of its intractable annual budget deficit. The implicit message in these promises is that France faces a very challenging half-decade.
In the same interview, Hollande also offered a grim state-of-the-republic assessment in which he noted "high unemployment, decreased competitiveness, considerable deficits [and] an historic indebtedness." The message to his base: circumstances prevent him from acting like some sort of Socialist Santa Claus for France's poor and middle classes.