By Catherine Bremer
PARIS (Reuters) - Francois Hollande has shot down the idea that he is a spineless, indecisive president in three days that saw him nail a landmark labor reform, stand up to anti-gay marriage protesters and dispatch troops to Mali.
The politician long nicknamed after a brand of wobbly blancmange pudding emerged from his most testing weekend in office looking like he has a lot more backbone than critics gave him credit for and should get a much-needed boost to his image.
A survey published on Monday of 1,021 people in France by pollster Ifop found 63 percent backed Hollande's decision to take military action against Islamist rebels in Mali, responding within 24 hours to the Malian government's appeal for help.
Newspaper editorials praised a triple show of decisiveness that marked a turning point for the Socialist leader. Le Monde daily quoted Interior Minister Manuel Valls as saying it took "exceptional circumstances" for a statesman to show his colors.
"This makes those who criticized his inability to make decisions look a bit silly," said Bruno Tertrais, head of research at Paris's Foundation for Strategic Research.
Bernard-Henry Levy, a celebrity philosopher who campaigned to persuade Hollande's conservative predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, to intervene in Libya in 2011, said the Socialist president had earned his spurs.
"With the Mali intervention, an historic labor agreement and a gay equality law at the same time ... he's done his job," Levy told local newspaper Nice Matin. "I think we'll see a new climate where the Hollande-bashing stops a bit."
Beyond the immediate widespread backing, the risks thrown up by Hollande's Mali mission, including possible reprisal attacks by Islamist militants and new dangers for eight French hostages held in the Sahel, will make the next few weeks crucial.
"All this can only give a boost to his image. He's been on the offensive all month and now, for the first time, he has taken action on international terrain," said Christophe Barbier, editor of weekly news magazine L'Express, noting that even right-wing critics had been hushed.
Yet Barbier cautioned that the intervention could backfire if France got bogged down in a protracted war in Mali, hostages were killed or it led to a revenge attack on French soil.
"People will back him in the early stages but he will need to show results. The pressure is on him to succeed," he said.
Al Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels promised on Monday to drag France into a long and brutal Afghanistan-style ground war, and one faction vowed to make French citizens pay.
Hollande will meet relatives of the French hostages, now pawns in a much bigger conflict, in the coming days.
His biggest domestic policy success to date, securing a labor reform deal between unions and employers, came just as the first French warplanes were pounding rebel bases in Mali.
The method of the labor market overhaul, thrashed out in talks among "social partners" rather than imposed top-down by the government, may be more of a breakthrough than the relatively modest content of the agreement.
With unemployment at 10.3 percent and rising, it remains to be seen whether the trade-off between more flexible long-term work contracts and somewhat greater security for short-term workers can have an impact on a jobs crisis that is Hollande's most-pressing challenge.
NEW IMAGE ON SHOW
Hollande's weekend of action came after clumsy handling of campaign promises turned the public mood against him while his attempts to impose a super-tax on millionaires and block industrial closures drew international mockery.
He has also been under market scrutiny over a public deficit target that France is set to miss due to stalled growth.
His decision to deploy fighter jets to Mali struck a parallel with Sarkozy's intervention in Libya that was all the more surprising given the contrast between the cautious, laid-back Hollande and his impulsive, hyperactive predecessor.
"Francois Hollande's hand did not tremble," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told LCI TV, describing Friday's crisis meeting.
Hollande cut a grave figure as he announced the operation in a broadcast to the nation on Friday, helped by a teleprompter put in place by his new image consultant, a former newsreader.
Even the first-day setbacks of the shooting down of a French helicopter, killing the pilot, and the deaths of two commandos and a secret agent held hostage in Somalia in an unrelated raid to try to free him did not appear to spoil Hollande's new glow.
The president also stood firm on Sunday in the face of the biggest single Paris street march in 30 years as several hundred thousand people protested at his plan to legalize gay marriage.
While the peaceful demonstration was huge, Hollande's office said it would not affect his determination to pass the reform, opposed by conservative voters and religious leaders. [ID:nL6N0AI0I0]. Hollande has a bigger parliamentary majority than Sarkozy, who forced through an unpopular pension reform in 2010 despite a 3 million-strong nationwide protest.
The image of Hollande as a war president with the mettle to push through big social and structural reforms cast him in a new light after he appeared to dither over the sickly economy for six months before taking steps in November to promote investment and job creation.
Yet the sheen may fade once attention returns to economic realities such as the soaring unemployment rate.
Economists hailed Friday's labor deal as an encouraging basis for further economic reforms but doubted that on its own it would noticeably bring down jobless numbers.
The reform will give firms more scope to reduce work hours and pay in downturns while encouraging hiring by trimming the huge sums courts can award workers who are permanently laid off and the time they have to appeal. Labour Minister Michel Sapin said he hoped it would alter France's image abroad.
Analysts mostly said the deal was only a small step in the right direction. "The labour market is not going to be overhauled by this agreement. Far from it," Deutsche Bank economist Gilles Moec wrote in a research note.
A successful Mali operation may temporarily distract attention from the economy, but it may not alter a widespread view that Hollande is moving too slowly on reforms.
"His reaction on Mali has shown that when there's an emergency imposed from outside Hollande can act fast. But when it's him deciding, he makes questionable choices," said Barbier.
"The labour reform, whose effectiveness is far from guaranteed, is more representative of a methodology which, in a time of economic crisis, is subject to a lot of questions."
(Reporting by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Paul Taylor)
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