French president Francois Hollande fell to a new low in the polls last week—and then, in trying to make it better, somehow made it worse. His popularity is now at a stunningly low 12% (link in French). Hollande has been under 20% consistently since last November. The economic malaise means that his tax-raising policies and his lack of dynamism are irritating the French.
So the president have a live interview to TF1, and promised not to seek a second term if he does not cut the unemployment rate, currently 11%. One quote, in particular, quickly became a meme: ”Ça ne coûte rien, c’est l’Etat qui paye”—”It costs nothing, it’s the state that pays.”
The phrase trended on Twitter, with critics assuming Hollande was speaking about the cost of his plan to create jobs. One person suggested: “It’s the state that pays… someone must tell Hollande that the state is us and our taxes:”
There’s only one problem: Hollande never said those words.
As the French press noted (link in French), Hollande was responding to a question about the “high cost” of his government’s jobs plan. In the exchange, the following was said:
Hollande: Local authorities have financial difficulties too.
TF1: Because it’s very expensive.
Hollande: No, the state pays. So in this case, no, it doesn’t cost much to local communities, since it is the state that pays…
TF1: The state are the taxpayers. In Marseille, for example.
Hollande: Yes, but this is not the Marseille community, or le département, or the region, but I’ll come back to do it: this is the state making the effort.
Perhaps it was ill-phrased, but Hollande was talking specifically about the cost of his jobs program and making a point about which organ of government would take the hit—in this case, the central government in Paris, rather than local bodies throughout France. And he never said “It costs nothing.”
L’Express found (link in French) that the first person to “mishear” the phrase was an MP for the rightwing UMP, who said: “‘Jobs of the future, it costs nothing, it’s the state that pays’. But what is the state? It’s our taxes !!!!!!”
In this case, the phrase Hollande was supposed to have said fit the image of the president as an arch-leftist, clumsy and unable to do anything without borrowing more money to throw at state-led solutions. In his TF1 interview, Hollande promised there would be no additional tax “on anyone” from next year. Yet a poll afterwards suggested that 78% of the 8 million people (link in French) who watched Hollande’s performance on TV weren’t convinced.
The president has his work cut out, not only to change his country’s economic situation, but also its impression of him.