French president stakes out more forceful international role even as domestic troubles mount

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PARIS — French President Francois Hollande sought Thursday to stake out a forceful position on international affairs, even as his failures on the domestic stage continue to mount.

Hollande, the most unpopular president in French history according to polls, began his twice-yearly question-and-answer session with hundreds of reporters in the Elysee Palace's gilded grand hall by announcing the country would soon begin airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in Iraq.

Saying he was acting at the request of Iraqi authorities, Hollande's pledge of airstrikes sought to position France at the forefront of international efforts to combat Islamic extremism.

"France is meeting its responsibilities" by attacking the Islamic State group, Hollande said, inadvertently drawing a contrast with his performance on the domestic economy, where he's delivered disappointment and broken promises during his first two-and-a-half years in office.

Although Hollande began his more than two-hour news conference with a long preamble focused on France's fight against international extremism, as soon as the microphone began passing around the estimated 350 reporters present, he was peppered repeatedly with questions about the domestic failures of him and his Socialist Party.

"How did we get here," ''At what point do you have to dissolve parliament," and even "Haven't you diminished the presidential image by not using an umbrella at your public appearance last month" were among the deluge of pointed questions directed at Hollande.

Hollande remained affable throughout the interrogation, never responding with the acid-tongued sarcasm his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy often unleashed on unyielding reporters.

Only one question of the around 20 that were asked referred to Hollande's notoriously complicated private life — with one ex-partner in the government and another who recently published a scandalous tell-all book about her breakup with the president after he was photographed sneaking to rendezvous with a much younger French actress.

Hollande kept a smile on his face as he told the reporter who asked the question, "I've already addressed this question. I have nothing more to add."

Questioned about France's flailing economy, which has posted zero growth this year and forced Hollande into an embarrassing reversal on an EU pledge to reduce the country's deficit, the president stuck to his much-repeated defense: that France is not alone in suffering from the weak European economy and that it needs more time for efforts to cut spending and boost corporate investment to pay off.

"My main argument is that I don't believe an economy such as France, or others, can restore its competitiveness and its public accounts at the same time," Hollande said by way of excusing France's latest breach of EU deficit limits.

Having promised European partners last spring that this would be brought down to 3 percent of gross domestic product by the end of 2015, Hollande now plans to ask the EU for a two-year extension until the end of 2017 after that year's presidential elections.

Hollande unveiled a 50 billion-euro ($64.36 billion) spending cut plan earlier this year as well as incentives for businesses to hire and invest, policies that divided his Socialist Party and contributed to a government reshuffle last month.


Associated Press writer Sylvie Corbet contributed to this article.


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