The French press are an impressively febrile bunch. Like the British press (although they would never admit stooping so low) they love to build up only to knock down. Nicolas Sarkozy’s roller-coaster ride, from golden boy in 2002 to the devil in 2012, was more extreme than most. The general impression one has from looking at a broad cross-section of the French press in its coverage of François Hollande is disappointment, and a little boredom. The new President isn’t sexy or dynamic. Even his controversial partner has turned out to be better behaved than they had anticipated.
And so this week’s Presidential press conference was a key test for Hollande. He didn’t simply have to convey his message to those who were watching at home, but to the most important constituency in modern politics: the Presidential corps of journalists. So how did he do?
President Hollande began Tuesday’s press conference with an introductory speech of 40 minutes. The President has sometimes a rather wearing speaking style, and the first fifteen minutes of the speech suffered in particular, as they were little more than a laundry list of legislative activity so far (a little more lyricism would have been welcome here). But then the President hit his stride with his central message: explaining his new competitiveness policy. Here he was forceful, direct and clear. The announcement last week of the policy to reorder VAT rates (Hollande was clear to ensure that the reduction in the base rate of 5.5% was not forgotten) was somewhat lost in the media buzz surrounding the US Presidential Election. Here, the message was honed and clear. It was also a challenge to the left of the party: if you have a problem with the 0.4% rise in the main rate of VAT, said the President, that’s my bag.
The questions themselves were an unsurprising rag-tag, and at times it was amusing to see the President’s obvious familiarity with many of the journalists (he is on first name terms with most of the French Presidential corps due to his long years schmoozing them as Socialist Party leader). Nothing threw him off-balance, and instead he was able to deflect several, such as the inevitable final question as to what his greatest mistake had been, with a gentle wit.
What was important was the obvious authority and mastery of his brief. Whilst he often took time to formulate his answers, he was clearly confident and relaxed. This projected confidence and the room warmed to his answers as time went on. At no point was he stuck, did he fumble or did he add to the gaffes accumulated by his own government.
The following day’s press was overwhelmingly supportive. Nouvel Obs (a centre left weekly) summarised the general feeling of the press corps, that the ghost of Nicolas Sarkozy, so domineering with the media, had finally left the Elysée palace. That is a big achievement, especially given that the return of Nicolas Sarkozy is, however surprising to foreign eyes, a distinct possibility in 2017. L’Express, a right-wing weekly confirmed that the press had been won over (but it couldn’t resist a dig that the public might not follow).
The opposition fell flat by over-pitching their hostility: there are only so many times that Jean-François Copé can claim that the President has failed to lead, give direction, or is disconnected from reality. What he cannot do is criticise in detail the policies themselves, because he broadly supports the same ideas. Instead he descends into caricature, claiming that the course is not there. What rubbish, said conservative commentator Olivier Mazerolle on BFMTV. The course is clearly there – you can disagree with it, but you can’t deny its existence.
In the political “centre” (in reality the centre right), Jean-Louis Borloo, seemingly just having struggled out of bed, claimed he was queasy at the statement by the President that unemployment would continue to rise for the next year, before the real effects of his policies took hold. Once again, Borloo missed the target and focussed on the communication of the policy and not the policy itself. François Bayrou, ever an honest politician, conceded however that the President’s performance was convincing. On the far left, Jean-Luc Melenchon accused the President of having abandoned his Socialist principles – an odd criticism given that Hollande has never pretended to be anything other than the social-democrat that is now governing the country.
Non-partisans seem to agree that Hollande did what was needed to break the narrative of a lost administration. The churn of media stories about flailing politicians should now cease (it can concentrate on the UMP eviscerating each other). Why is that so important for the President? Because, perhaps more in France because of the volume of material and airtime dedicated to its analysis, the general feeling of the media and the endless armies of chroniqueurs on round-table discussion programmes sets the tone for how the political debate is framed, and therefore media relations matter to a disproportionate extent. The government has largely neglected this aspect in the first six months. The public’s views are therefore cast within that framework. If the media let up on the government for a few months, there is therefore a good chance that the public will do so as well. Whilst, as the President said, he doesn’t need good poll ratings to govern, they certainly help to keep the troops in line.