With François Hollande’s announcement that he and former “first girlfriend” Valérie Trierweiler have separated, France’s Socialist Party will be dearly hoping that the soap opera that has gripped the nation for the last few weeks is now over.
Hollande has not denied reports that he is romantically involved with actress Julie Gayet, but he has clearly indicated that she will not be taking on an official role. He evidently intends that the media and the public should focus on his policies rather than his private life.
It’s not at all clear, however, that that will help. The trajectory of Hollande’s opinion poll ratings counts against the idea that the publicity for his love triangle has hurt him, at least so far. His approval rating bottomed out before the recent publicity; since then it has, if anything, recovered slightly.
That may change this week, with news of a new high for unemployment in France, now at 11.1%. But even that may ultimately work in the president’s favor as it reinforces his message of the need for a shift towards more pro-growth, pro-business policies – something that much of his party still regards with scepticism.
Either way, it makes the point that policy, and especially economic policy, is Hollande’s problem, not the much more interesting stories that have dominated the news this month.
When Hollande beat Nicolas Sarkozy less than two years ago, his big selling point was the promise to be a “normal” president, in contrast to the mercurial incumbent. The message was that Sarkozy was spending his time on showy distractions rather than the hard work of fixing the French economy.
The fact that Sarkozy split with his wife and took up with a model was not of itself problematic, and it would have been pointless trying to tell French voters that it was. Similarly, the fact that Hollande has proved to be not as boring as people thought would be readily tolerated by the public, as long as they thought he was doing his job properly. Apparently most of them do not.
And this isn’t just a French problem. The swing towards the left that has been evident in Europe for the last two years or so seems to be petering out, or at least running into trouble.
In the middle of 2011, at the height of the financial crisis, the centre-right was in government in 21 of the European Union countries, against just five for the centre-left. (I’ve left Ireland out as unclassifiable.) That tide has been steadily running out, and now, with the recent changes of government in Luxembourg and the Czech Republic, the centre-left is ahead, 14 to 12 – its best position since 2002.
(These calculations are always a bit debatable: my 14 are Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Croatia is new to the EU, while the Netherlands has joined Ireland on the unclassifiable list.)
But the last few results have been unconvincing (the Social Democrats went backwards in the Czech election, for example, but their centre-right opponents did even worse), and in any case election results are a trailing indicator. Centre-left governments like those in France and Italy are not travelling well, while centre-right governments that had looked in big trouble, notably in Britain and Spain, have picked up some ground.
It’s too early to say whether this is a real trend or just a minor blip. But for now, François Hollande is not the only one who probably needs to lift his game.