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François Hollande: A failed president? (COP Paris CC 1.0)

A few weeks ago I was invited to lunch with the President of the French Republic at the Elysée Palace. Given my previous public pronouncements both on his election — on a fraudulent prospectus — and his presidency — disastrous — I was understandably nervous about what to expect and why exactly I had been invited. We gathered across the road at the Hôtel de Marigny, a former Rothschild mansion now used by official guests of the French state. It was here, I was told, that General Gaddafi had pitched his tent when he came to Paris. It had seen better days. We entered the Elysée by a side door and made our way through the back corridors into the heart of the building. The contrast with 10 Downing Street could not be more marked. The latter is akin to the Tardis. One room opens out to another and another, and visitors quickly lose a sense of where they are. In the Elysée, all is monarchical splendour and republican order, uniformed staff wait upon your every move, and, when all are properly assembled in a room overlooking the impeccably manicured garden, the arrival of the president is announced.

The first thing that struck me was that François Hollande was shorter than I had anticipated. Why do we imagine that powerful men are also tall men? The second was that he has impeccable manners. Each of the six guests was greeted individually and with faultless courtesy. Rather ridiculously, I bowed. Once we were sat down together, Hollande made it clear that he wanted us to have an open discussion and, above all, that he wanted to know our views on the future of France. Of course, politeness (and, in some quarters, a fawning francophilia) got the better of us and I wonder what, if anything, the president got out of our conversation. We talked about unemployment in France, about France’s economic problems more generally, about the place of France in the world, and we even got onto Brexit. About the latter he seemed to have no strong views, apart from pointing out that General de Gaulle had always thought that the British would be difficult partners. One could only agree.

So, as our lunch came to an end and the Gevrey-Chambertin was finished, I was left simply with an impression of a man who was intelligent, inquiring, good-humoured, and, to be frank, very likeable. I could also understand how he could evoke such strong loyalty from his closest advisers.

We left the Elysée via the magnificent courtyard that opens out onto the Rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré and I spent the afternoon ambling through Paris, calling in to see friends along the way. The response was universally the same: “Nice man, rubbish president.” Fresh from my enjoyable lunch, I could not help but feel that there was some terrible injustice here. Agreed, the first couple of years were exactly what you would expect of a socialist government and presidency: money thrown after expensive election promises to no effect. But had not Hollande now appointed a reforming prime minister? Was not something being done to change France’s restrictive labour laws? And, above all, had he not responded with great dignity and decisiveness to the Paris attacks?

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