France's President May Look Strong Pressuring the U.S., but at Home He's Losing to a Politician Accused of Racism

Matt Berman

On Monday, French President Francois Hollande went off on the U.S. amid allegations arising from documents leaked by Edward Snowden that the National Security Agency has spied on the European Union. "We cannot accept this kind of behavior from partners and allies," he said on French television. The thing is, right now, Hollande is so unpopular at home that a politician who may soon be going on trial for inciting racial hatred has been beating him in the polls.

It's not just France that's peeved about the NSA. The revelations of NSA spying from Snowden are no joke: A report in Germany's Der Spiegel goes so far as to say that the U.S. has bugged E.U. offices in Washington and New York, in addition to listening in on phone calls in Brussels. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said that "mutual trust is necessary in order to come to [a trade] agreement" and that "we are no longer in the Cold War."

There is, unsurprisingly, plenty of political posturing here: As a former intelligence officer told The New York Times, European allies also spy on the E.U., and they've happily worked with the U.S. on intelligence "so long as everything remains secret." The former officer also notes that some of the pressure the Obama administration has felt to go after national security whistle-blowers has come from Europe.

But overt politicking be damned: This is the rare winning issue for Hollande, and not just because of French annoyances over spying. France has actually never been too big of a fan of the E.U.-U.S. free-trade pact, with particular worries about competition from the U.S. in its culture and film industry. Trying to blow the whole thing up over NSA spying is just something of a convenience.

But the real problem here is that Hollande is in a very, very bad place to shake his fist from. Nowhere is that better exemplified than in the personage of Marine Le Pen, head of France's far-right Front National party. On Tuesday, the European Parliament voted to remove Pen's parliamentary immunity over incitement to racial hatred charges stemming from a 2010 speech where she compared Muslim street prayers to Nazi occupiers. Seriously:

For those who want to talk a lot about World War II, if it's about occupation, then we could also talk about it [Muslim prayers in the streets], because that is occupation of territory.... It is an occupation of sections of the territory, of districts in which religious laws apply. It's an occupation.

Le Pen is now likely to face those charges. Also, if there was a French presidential election tomorrow where she went up against Francois Hollande, she'd likely win.

In a poll released in May of a hypothetical presidential race, Hollande was down 23 percent to 19 percent to Le Pen. Both candidates, the poll found, would have issues if former French President Nicolas Sarkozy joined the race (34 percent). These results were in line with an earlier poll where Hollande and Le Pen were tied at 22 perecent, and a March poll that showed Le Pen's approval rating at a point higher than Hollande's, 32 percent to 31 percent. 

This all comes just a little over a year since Hollande took office, when he beat Le Pen 28.6 percent to 17.9 percent, while Sarkozy clocked in with 27.2 percent of the vote. 

His unfavorable polling against a politician who is widely viewed as a fringe-racist is in no way Hollande's only problem. He's being pushed on his budget and fiscal austerity, he's being pushed on reshuffling his government, and unemployment in France hit a 15-year high in the first quarter of 2013. So while it may be some help to take the cause of E.U. privacy to the U.S., Hollande is still trying to bargain from a seriously weak stance.