Le Pen Victory In France Presents A Paradox For Hollande

In France, the far right's victory in last week's election was one more crisis for President Francois Hollande. Even before the vote, he was rated the most unpopular French president in 50 years.

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Far-right political parties won big in European parliamentary elections in many countries last weekend. Their victory was particularly painful in France, a founding member of the European Union, and has deepened the sense of crisis for the very unpopular Socialist president, Francois Hollande. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: National front-leader Marine Le Pen was glowing on election night last Sunday after her party got 26 percent of the vote, twice as much as the ruling Socialist party. The vote was another slap in the face for Hollande, coming just weeks after disastrous municipal elections for his Socialist party. Dominque Moisy is with the French Institute for International Relations.

DOMINIQUE MOISY: The President, after just a little more than two years in power, has lost credibility. And no one sees what he can do to reinvent himself. The moment people see the president on the French television, they start yawning.

BEARDSLEY: Hollande spoke on live television to the nation after the vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT FRANCOIS HOLLANDE: (French spoken).

BEARDSLEY: France's destiny is in Europe, he said. And France must continue to lead Europe. But Hollande said the country had been mismanaged over the last decade and had lost jobS and competitiveness and was debt ridden. He promised his economic reform program would turn things around, but many wonder if Hollande will be able to keep his promise. Reforms could push protesters into the streets and more voters into the arms of Marine Le Pen. Christophe Barbier, a columnist for L'Express magazine, says Hollande may be in an impossible situation, but he has no choice.

CHRISTOPHE BARBIER: (Through translator) If Francois Hollande reforms, people might be angry, but he has chance to have some results before the end of his term. If he doesn't reform, people will be angry anyway because our expensive social system will eventually fail.

BEARDSLEY: Barbier believes that Hollande can call on the nation's collective conscience and ask them, for an example, to give up some of their excess vacation time. He says France has lost 4 billion Euros just during the public holidays in May.

It's time for RMC Radio's daily talk show with Eric Brunet. Brunet is a conservative provocateur, a sort of French Rush Limbaugh. He says Le Pen voters are protesting the decline of France.

ERIC BRUNET: (Through translator) One hundred years ago, we were a top world power. And now a century later, we're becoming a little country. And people have a hangover, like after a big party. They can't accept this, so they vote for Le Pen.

BEARDSLEY: Brunet doesn't believe for a second that Hollande can reform France. He says neither could his conservative predecessors. With all its unions, lobbyists and special interest groups, Brunet says the country is unreformable.

On one of those long weekend holidays last month, 40-year-old Parisian Cyril Rousseau was playing tennis at a Paris sports club. Rosseau says people vote for extremists when they're scared and dissatisfied with mainstream politicians. He admits Hollande is in a bad situation.

CYRIL ROSSEAU: (French spoken).

BEARDSLEY: People are asking him to change everything, but at the same time, they don't want to change anything, says Rosseau. It's a complete paradox. Eleanor Beardesley, NPR News, Paris.

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