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My French neighbours moan, groan, deplore and denigrate. But their pride in their country never wavers

French presidents, like their American counterparts, love to address the nation at every possible opportunity.

Sitting at their desk in the magnificent Elysee Palace, fresh flowers to one side, French and European Union flags to the other, each one in his time is well aware that the title is seen as the mystical, spiritual embodiment of the country itself.

Part of Nicolas Sarkozy's downfall lay in his obvious, non-patrician enjoyment of being president; his apparent inability to sit still in his elevated chair, shoulders twitching, hands gesticulating. His words to his people always seemed semi-aggressive, his smile a little too close to a snarl, his cuffs a little too shot for a gentleman, and, of course, the glimpse of expensive watch just un peu trop bling-bling.

But watched he was, if only to see if his eyes betrayed the words issuing from his mouth. His appearances became a much analysed sport for the Parisian intellectuals on the following day's brain-fest TV shows.

By contrast, Francois Hollande has all the appeal of the pudding he's said to resemble - three days after first serving. A buttoned-up, over-promoted middle manager, he peers at the camera - and therefore the people - as if ready to wince when they shout back at their TV screens.

With a popularity rating the lowest of any president at this stage of his term, he knows even his Don-Juan-on-a-scooter exploits failed to endear him to a population normally tolerantly amused by such. Frankly, it was the scooter; the helmet and the bodyguard "wot done for him". Pas chic. However, with the celebrations of July 14 - Bastille Day as we non-French erroneously call it - he had a chance to find his presidential way.

The long weekend celebrations are taken enormously seriously. Each city, town and village has festivities ending in spectacular firework displays culminating in the colours of the flag. Anyone who saw even a little of the First World War inspired march-past of soldiers from 76 countries down the Champs-Elysees, couldn't fail to be impressed by the thought and touching remembrance of those who "came to save us" and those who died.

The swagger of the cloaked Foreign Legionnaires, the controlled might of the military horses of the French National Guard, the waves of French Army blue, all sang of a nation with a complicated, often troubled, but above all obstinately proud past.

To give him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps Hollande meant to reflect that in his speech. Instead, as so often happens when he attempts to explain himself, he infuriated the very people he sought to court. "There is a sort of illness which is not serious but can be contagious, where we are always deploring and denigrating. You have to be proud," he said, raising his voice, referring to the French joy of complaint and pessimism.

He compounded his, in my opinion, misreading of the country's mood, by adding: "Don't speak well of the president - I'm not asking you that much. Or of the government. I hope that will come; but speak well of your country."

He spoke as the latest figures showed a record 3.8 million people out of work despite Hollande's pledge to curb unemployment by staged means last year. He offered future tax cuts and boosts to apprentice schemes to get young people to work, but he has turned back so many times when faced with the intransigence of the unions and the implacability of his own supporters, that no-one believes him any more.

So they were left with "you have to be proud" and "speak well of your country" as the rousing core of his speech.

Maybe, in his circle, people are no longer proud or speak well of their country. Perhaps, and choosing my words carefully, education and privilege allow one to cast a cold eye on all patriotism and to feel a touch unsophisticated by stating love of one's country in such simplistic terms. But France has always been much more than Paris or any of the other fine towns.

Its heart is La France Profonde and wiser presidents have always been careful to cultivate and woo its residents, knowing that the sacred terroir is the real root of all power.

My deeply "profonde" French neighbours and friends moan, groan, deplore and denigrate. They are usually miserable, pessimistic, dark, bedeviled with jealousy and spite; quick to find fault, slight and slur.

They will denounce a compatriot for the sake of 2ft of a boundary edge; steal a plot of scrub by stealth and mischief; gossip and damn those whose lives don't ring with theirs; and when they see their country changing many will run to the furthest reaches - the despicable Front National.

I've seen, see it all around me. But I have also seen great acts of kindness, generous empathy for the foreigners among them and above all a community spirit and involvement that goes beyond individual feuds.

So much of their "Bof! Humbug" is an acquired act, though a lot isn't. But their pride in their country never, ever wavers. And to suggest it does is the ultimate insult. How come I know that and President Hollande doesn't?

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