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Honeymoon over for Hollande

Collapsing support for Hollande and Rajoy underscore the crisis pressure on Europe's political mainstream.

Hollande honeymoon overEnlarge
French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (not pictured) speak to the media following talks at the Chancellery hours after Hollande's inauguration in Paris on May 15, 2012 in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup/AFP/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Honeymoons are short for politicians in Europe these days.

Just four months after he was elected, France's Socialist President Francois Hollande saw his  popularity ratings plummet 11 percent in September — almost equaling the record fall of Gen. Charles de Gaulle after he agreed to Algerian independence in 1962.

"It's often a turning point when the president falls below the 50 percent mark, and that's happened very quickly for François Hollande," says Frédéric Dabi, deputy director general of the polling agency Ifop, which showed Hollande' approval rating at 43 percent. "Our barometer reveals a post-election disappointment, a disenchantment."

In Spain, 84 percent of voters have little or no confidence in Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, according to one recent poll. That presumably that includes many who voted for him when his conservative party was swept to power last November with its best ever national election result.

The collapsing support for leaders elected with big margins just a few months ago is raising more fears that the prolonged economic crisis is stoking a dangerous dissatisfaction with mainstream politicians.

"With the vertical drop in prestige of political parties there is populism ... now openly attacking the establishment, and putting forward simple answers to complex questions," Roberto Toscano, senior research fellow at the Barcelona Center for International Affairs, said in an interview published Thursday on the think tank's web site.

In Greece, the failure of successive socialist, conservative, and non-elected technocratic governments to ease the economic pain as the country lurches toward a 6th year of recession has seen a surge in protests, street violence and support for political extremists. Latest polls show communist- and Nazi-inspired parties would come second and third in an election there.

Spain and Portugal have seen anti-government protests mounting in recent weeks, with protests turning violent in Madrid.

Political dissatisfaction in Spain is also being channeled toward nationalists in Catalonia who blame the region's economic woes on the Spanish government's "plundering" of their tax revenues.

The Separatists are expected to score well in next month's regional elections and and the head of Catalan regional government has promised a referendum on independence.

The Spanish government says that would be illegal, setting up a confrontation between the authorities in Madrid and Barcelona that is polarizing opinion.

One leading member of Rajoy's People's Party suggested last week that the government should consider dissolving the Catalan parliament and sending in the paramilitary Civil Guard to restore Madrid's control.

"If they persist with this rebellious stance, the government has to intervene, there can be no turning back," Alejo Vidal-Quadras, vice-president of the European Parliament, told a TV debate in Madrid.

Vidal-Quadras later said he was speaking "in an ironic tone," but his comments were widely denounced by Catalans as a throw back the oppression that followed the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. 

The crisis has also sparked demands for independence, or at least greater local control over tax revenues, in regions as far apart as Italy's Alpine South Tyrol to the Portuguese Madeira islands off the coast of North Africa.

In France, dissatisfaction with Hollande has not led to major poll swings toward the political extremes, but support has held up for the far right National Front and the radical Left Front whose leaders together took almost a fifth of votes in the May presidential elections.

Hollande is under attack from several sides as he struggles to cut France's budget deficit.

Left wingers are angry he hasn't taken on companies that have laid off workers or undone the austerity measures introduced by his conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy. The right denounces tax hikes as a threat to business that will stifle hopes of recovery.

Tens-of-thousands took the streets of Paris on Sept. 30 in the biggest anti-austerity protest since Hollande's election; business leaders warn a new 75 percent tax on the wealthy risks driving some of the country's most successful entrepreneurs out of the country; members of his own Socialist Party are threatening a parliamentary revolt by voting next week against a European treaty on fiscal restraint which Hollande once promised to re-negotiate, but is now supporting.

Some of the most troublesome criticism is coming from a group of disgruntled, small business owners who've taken to the Internet to protest against planned tax rises. Calling themselves The Pigeons - pigeon is French slang for a patsy - their campaign went viral, earning 58,000 Facebook likes in a week.

"Entrepreneurs are not patsies, they are men and women capable of innovative ideas that create jobs and wealth," says the Pigeons' Facebook page. "Let the spirit of initiative grow, rather than trying to arbitrarily regulate everything."

Fearful of appearing anti-business, the government has backed down saying Friday said it would revise its plans for higher capital gains taxes. The Pigeons welcomed the announcement, but promised to remain "vigilant" on the government plans. Although they deny a wider political agenda, some are wondering if their movement could develop into a French-style Tea Party.

In the midst of the backlash against so-many governments, the politician vilified by many in southern Europe as responsible for prolonging the crisis appears to be ever-more popular in her homeland.

Support in Germany for Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic party is higher than at any time since the crisis began, according to a survey released Friday for the ARD television network.

Merkel remains the Germany's  most popular politician with a 67-percent approval rating, followed by her Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble — an ardent defender of southern austerity — with 64 percent.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/france/121006/honeymoon-over-hollande