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Hollande: Friendly yet disliked

DIJON (AP) – French President Francois Hollande dived into the heart of Burgundy and turned on his self-effacing charm to try to win back support from voters deeply disappointed in him. It didn t really work.
Sending troops earlier this year against potential terrorists in the West African country of Mali gave Hollande a temporary boost in popularity but record-high and still-growing unemployment matters more, as he discovered this week on a trip to reconnect with the electorate.
According to some polling agencies, Hollande has the worst approval ratings of any French president since 1981, with less than a third of respondents saying they trust him to solve the country s problems.
The paradox of Francois Hollande is that wherever he goes, he wins a generally cordial welcome. Voters find him friendly and approachable like a regular guy but are disappointed in his leadership of the country and frustrated that he hasn t turned the economy around.
This was evident on a two-day visit to Dijon this week that s part of a new presidential push to woo the French heartland. Comfortable with the hand-shaking exercise, Hollande always looked happy to kiss a young child, chat with parents, pose for a picture, or taste a regional culinary specialty.
At the yearly Agricultural Fair in Paris last month, Hollande spent 10 straight hours at the convention center, consuming wine and cheese, listening to farmers  woes and hopes. He laughed it off when a goat tried to eat his suit jacket. He brushed a cow with one hand, showered her with a hose in the other hand. He was greeted with friendly cries of “Hello, Francois!” from farmers from his electoral home region of Correze.
The French president plays on his good nature and calm temper to try to appease the anxiety of a population confronted by high unemployment and a series of factory closures and layoffs.
France s unemployment rate reached 10.6 percent in the latest quarter of 2012, the highest in 13 years, and youth employment is over 25 percent.
In Dijon, a bastion of his Socialist Party, Hollande spent several hours saying hello to inhabitants and Socialist sympathizers, as if a smile and kind gaze was the best answer he could give.
“There are and it s normal in such a crisis some fears, sometimes some doubts,” he said. “I wanted … to hear the impatience, and show that the government has some political tools that will allow us to reverse the unemployment trend by the end of the year.”
But when he arrived in a disadvantaged neighborhood, suffering from a 30 percent unemployment rate, Hollande couldn t ignore the disappointment of a part of the population. “And the promises? Where promises, where are they, M. Hollande?” shouted a man in the crowd, referring to Hollande s pledges during his election campaign last year to stimulate the economy.
“I do not believe in him anymore, nobody does,” said Fabien Bauduin, 32, a construction worker. “The country has never been as tense as today. I voted for him because I believed in him, like thousands of us. We re very disappointed. These kinds of visits will not solve the problems.”
Hollande s non-aggressive, compromise-prone character partially explains why the bitterness expressed in the polls does not focus on his personality, but on his ability to push France out of economic crisis.
Hollande is cultivating his image as “Mr. Normal,” a nickname he gained during his campaign for the presidential election in contrast with his conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, who was often described in French media as the “bling-bling president.”
Hollande arrived in Dijon by train in the middle of other passengers, without any aides or government members, just his numerous bodyguards. His car stopped carefully at every red light in the town, whereas Sarkozy used to ask for an extended protection convoy moving quickly with loud sirens. Before attending a formal dinner in Dijon, Hollande made a point to visit a downscale cafe for a pre-dinner drink.
Also known as “Mr. Little Jokes,” Hollande often can t resist treating a serious subject with a bit of humor. When he was visiting a Dijon company that specializes in medical bandages and sells some of its products in Germany, he made an allusion to France s stagnant economy in 2012 vs. Germany s growth: “Germans are healing much quicker than us, that explains the difference of growth between us at the moment.”
Hollande s reforms, focused on competitiveness and youth unemployment, could take time to get some results. He unveiled last week a plan to loosen France s worker-friendly labor rules and convince employers to hire more easily. He also introduced a new job contract for unqualified young workers, where up to 75 percent of the salary is subsidized by the state, and a so-called “generation contract” that encourages companies to hire people under age 25 while keeping workers over age 57.
Francois Rebsamen, the Socialist mayor of Dijon, wants the government to better explain the new measures. “There are a lot of expectations, a lot of fears, we can t deny it,” he said to journalists.
To keep on his charm offensive, Hollande plans to visit a new region of France every six to eight weeks.
“My conception of the presidency is not of a locked, timid one,” he said. “There are some moments of doubts, of unpopularity. And so what? I have to show that we can succeed.”

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