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Thursday 28 August 2014

Hollande fends off tough questions but admits 'pain' in his private life

President tried hard to steer interrogation on to reform agenda. John Lichfield reports from Paris

John Lichfield

Published 15/01/2014 | 02:30

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French President Francois Hollande
French actress Julie Gayet
French actress Julie Gayet

Two Francois Hollandes appeared before the world's press yesterday. One of them -- the statesman and would-be saviour of France -- refused to comment on the nocturnal escapades of the private man.

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He was allowed to get away with it, more or less, by the 600 journalists packed into the Elysee Palace. It is difficult to imagine the leader of any other democratic country escaping so lightly.

Mr Hollande admitted to suffering "pain" in his private life, but he refused to comment on reports that he is having an affair with a 41-year-old actress, Julie Gayet.

Additional unconfirmed claims from a number of media outlets today report that Ms Gayet is four months pregnant with the French president's child. There is as yet no basis for these rumours but the continued press attention demonstrates the global mpact the affair allegations have had.

Mr Hollande declined to say whether his official companion Valerie Trierweiler should still be considered France's First Lady. Mr Hollande said that a statement would be made before February 11 when the French first couple are expected to visit the Obamas at the White House.

"Everyone in his private life can go through ordeals," he said. "That is what is happening to us. These are painful moments. But I have a principle that private matters are dealt with in private. This is neither the place nor the time to do so."

'BLUES'

Asked about the health of Ms Trierweiler (49), who is in hospital recovering from a "severe case of the blues", Mr Hollande said curtly: "She is resting. I have nothing else to say."

So much for the private man. The other Hollande -- the socialist statesman and would-be saviour of France -- was in more loquacious form.

He spent most of a two-and-a-half-hour press conference explaining a sharp lurch in his economic policy towards a more market-driven, supply-side approach.

Over the next three years, a whole €30bn section of the French welfare state -- family policy -- will be cut or funded in a different way, he said. This would substantially ease the payroll taxes, or social charges, which weigh heavily on the cost of labour in France. Abuses and excesses in the welfare state would be attacked.

In return, employers must commit to creating tens of thousands of jobs.

There would be a drive to cut the sprawling French state apparatus, examining all policies anew and saving an extra €50bn (on top of €15bn in savings this year). Entire areas of local government could be merged or abolished.

Here, too, Mr Hollande played the tight-rope walker. He said that these proposals were not a "U-turn" or a new departure, just an "acceleration" or "deepening" of what he has done in the past 20 months.

Two minutes later he boasted that his proposed "responsibility pact" was the "most radical social compromise demanded of the French people for many decades".

Although Mr Hollande was light on detail, the thrust of his proposals is revolutionary in French terms.

Mr Hollande did take a couple of other questions on 'l'affaire Gayet' without confirming or denying that the man pictured in a motorcycle helmet leaving her flat on December 31 was indeed him. He would not sue 'Closer' magazine for publishing the images, he said, though his "indignation was total" at the breach of his right to privacy.

Yes, he agreed the legal status of the French First Lady -- at present she has none -- should be made clear. He promised "transparency" on the subject.

Can his presidency recover? His popularity had already fallen to depths not previously plumbed by presidents of the Fifth Republic.

An opinion poll yesterday showed a slight upturn in the number of French people who approve of him.

According to the Ipsos poll for 'Le Point', Mr Hollande is now liked by 24pc of voters, compared with 23pc in December. At that rate, another 26 escapades with actresses would put Mr Hollande back in the electoral black.

According to one interpretation of his hand-brake turn on economic policy, he knows that he has already blown his re-election chances in 2017. He is engaged in a kamikaze reform policy, like Germany's Gerhard Schroeder a decade ago.

Mr Hollande's party remains largely unreconstructed. He waved red flags (attacking 'big finance' and promising a 75pc tax on the super-rich) in order to win election.

In power, he has, until now, followed a shuffling course, neither old-fashioned, statist tax-and-spender nor full-blooded reformer.

To succeed even in kamikaze reforms Mr Hollande will need respect and authority. Both have been diminished by the image of a furtive president leaving his girlfriend's flat in a motorcycle helmet. (© Independent News Service)

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