France's president defends tortoise style

November 13, 2012 - 6:34 PM
France Hollande

French President Francois Hollande addresses reporters during a press conference held at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Tuesday Nov.13, 2012. Francois Hollande gave a wide-ranging press conference about his much-criticized presidency so far.(AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)

PARIS (AP) — France's president just can't seem to win.

Six months after sweeping to power on an anti-austerity wave, polls say Socialist President Francois Hollande is increasingly disliked. Leftists are disappointed he's not spending more state money to create jobs. Critics on the right say he's raising too many taxes.

Hollande defended his presidency and answered critics Tuesday with what's becoming his signature message: "Recovery takes time." Fixing a zero-growth economy and 10 percent unemployment doesn't happen overnight, he said at the first big news conference of his term.

Hollande staked out bolder ground on foreign policy. He defended Greece and minimized differences with Germany over fixing Europe's economy.

He gave a big boost to a new Syrian opposition coalition by becoming the first Western nation to recognize it as "the sole legitimate voice of the Syrian people." And he warned that terrorists in northern Mali have become the biggest threat to France's national security.

But France's economy is Hollande's biggest challenge. He admitted cuts are needed in France's vast and costly public sector, which amounts to more than half of gross domestic product.

"We should be capable of doing better in spending less," he said. "We have to show —France more than others, and more than Germany — seriousness and competitiveness."

But that drew accusations that he reneged on promises to avoid the kind of austerity measures imposed on struggling Greece and Spain. Protesters in France and countries around Europe will go to the streets Wednesday to say that cutbacks are unfair and only make things worse.

Hollande is buffeted by skittish markets, German calls for spending cuts and his leftist voter base.

To markets, he pledged Tuesday to stick to targets that would bring France's deficit down to 3 percent of gross domestic product next year. He downplayed concerns that the government's anemic 0.8 percent growth targets for 2013 are too high.

To Germany, he said he's determined "to find the good compromise in the interest of Europe" with Chancellor Angela Merkel.

To leftist voters who blame banks for Europe's financial woes, he promised a draft law by the end of the year to split banks' retail activities from their riskier investment activities.

But it's unclear whether any of this will quiet the growing criticism of Hollande's presidency.

Valerie Rosso-Debord of the opposition conservative party UMP said after Hollande's news conference that he's leading a "zig-zag" policy "that shows neither direction nor ambition."

The New Anti-Capitalist Party accused him of pandering to corporate interests. "Forget the adversary of finance," it said in a statement, referring to the moniker Hollande gave himself while campaigning earlier this year.

Three polls released Tuesday show approval ratings for Hollande stood between 41 percent and 44 percent.

Among the top five reasons given in one poll for why Hollande is unpopular: He hiked taxes, he lacks vision, and he lacks solutions strong enough to pull France out of crisis.

At the news conference, he acknowledged errors but shrugged off the criticism, joking in English about being a "punching ball" for the media.

He argues that he's in it for the long term. His election campaign ran along similar lines, a slow and steady race against the more frenetic Nicolas Sarkozy.

"The only question that matters is the state of France in five years" when his term expires, Hollande said. "I am not preparing for the outcome of the next election. I'm preparing for the outcome of the next generation."

Ultimately, Hollande insisted, "Decline is not our destiny."

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Sylvie Corbet and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.