Friday saw the latest blow to France’s unpopular President François Hollande when a top aide quit over an alleged conflict of interest. Policy and media advisor Aquilino Morelle reportedly consulted with a pharmaceutical company while a senior official at France’s health, social and drugs commission, and misused official resources — allegedly raiding the Elysée’s wine cellars and having his extensive shoe collection polished every two months on the government’s dime. He is the second Hollande ally forced to resign over reports of financial shenanigans (see disgraced former budget minister Jerome Cahuzac).
The news came amid an attempted Holland course-correction in the wake of his ruling Socialist Party’s (PS) disastrous performance in April’s local elections, the biggest recent piece of which was a cabinet shuffle that had party firebrand Manual Valls stepping in as prime minister. But while Valls is among France’s most popular politicians, far surpassing the president himself, he is also the source of heated controversy within the PS thanks to his polemic stances, which often echo those endorsed by the French Right. This week, the Socialist Party once again split over Valls, after the premier announced spending cuts to the tune of 50 billion euros ($69 billion) over the next three years. (This as the PS prepares for critical European parliamentary elections at the end of May, and a bruising re-match against the far right). An included freeze on welfare benefits has the party’s left wing particularly enraged.
Though Valls may be the president’s chosen bearer of bad news, Hollande is nonetheless blistering from the fallout; a recent opinion poll reveals that the president’s approval ratings have dropped from 20% to 18%, the lowest of any French leader in modern history. In the meanwhile, Valls’s numbers remain steadily in the upper 50s. Worse still, a survey published by French daily Le Figaro on Tuesday showed that if a snap election were held, FN leader Marine Le Pen would knock Hollande out of the race.
The deck seems stacked against the president, who faces stiff pressure from the European Commission to reach France’s target of reducing its budget deficit by 2015 (it is already behind schedule) even as he seeks to appease voters frustrated with record high unemployment. Hence the president’s dubious promise to French tire workers on Friday that he will not run in 2017 if unemployment doesn’t drop.
Yes, the French leader has three years to turn his bad luck around. But add to the president’s inability to rein in his squabbling party or reverse France’s economic plunge the recent revelations of Morelle’s luxurious lifestyle even as said spending cuts are announced — and let’s not forget the embarrassment of breaking his 2012 campaign vow (again) to lead a government ethically beyond reproach — and it’s getting harder and harder to see a winning strategy for Hollande.