By Ingrid Melander
PARIS (Reuters) - The same first name and title seemed to be the most that embattled French President Francois Hollande had in common with Francois Mitterrand on Wednesday as he marked the 100th anniversary of his late predecessor's birth.
Mitterrand, who exercised iron-fist control over his party and government, finished his first term in 1988 with high popularity ratings thanks to landmark policies that pleased his voters. He was easily re-elected and served until 1995.
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Hollande, by contrast, is the most unpopular leader in French polling history. As his first term nears its end next spring, even his closest allies openly criticize him and polls forecast that he has no chance of being re-elected.
The two are the only Socialist presidents elected during France's Fifth Republic, founded in 1958. But while Mitterrand made the French left electable, Hollande ends his five years in power with his party deeply unpopular and the left divided.
"Francois Mitterrand knew how to make leftwing voters' hearts race, while Francois Hollande doesn't," Jean-Daniel Levy of Harris Interactive pollsters said.
"When you asked the French in 1988 what they made of Mitterrand's mandate they would mention the end of the death penalty, the opening up of radio waves, the lowering of the retirement age. Despite the switch to austerity in 1983, there was a sense of pride," he said.
"Hollande does not manage to trigger that feeling of pride. Allowing gay marriage does not quite compare."
Polls show that many of those who voted Hollande into office in 2012 have been disappointed by the policies he pursued once he got there.
After declaring during his campaign that high finance was his enemy, Hollande brought in tax cuts for business in 2014. Later in his term, he backed a controversial labor reform.
In between, after two waves of bloody Islamist attacks in Paris, he embraced a right-wing proposal to strip foreign-born radicals of their French citizenship, only to drop the plan later as he could not get enough lawmakers to back it.
Two books this month underlined the contrast between the two men. The publication of Mitterrand's letters to his long-time mistress showed a man of complex passions and literary talent.
"A President Shouldn't Say That," a bombshell book based on Hollande's interviews with journalists from the daily Le Monde, had the president openly criticizing judges, football stars and even allies, prompting friendly fire from the Socialist ranks.
"At this stage no potential candidate, whoever he is, seems able to beat the right. Or even get past the first round," said Socialist Party secretary-general Jean-Christophe Cambadelis.
Only four percent of voters are satisfied with Hollande's record as president, an Ipsos-Cevipof poll on Tuesday showed.
Only nine percent of voters would back him in the first round of next year's presidential election, putting him behind left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon and his former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, a Kantar Sofres OnePoint poll showed.
Hollande, who seems to want to run, praised Mitterrand on Wednesday as "an exceptional Frenchman" who he said "never allowed himself to be discouraged, even when the obstacles seemed to have pushed him away from political life forever."
Likening himself to the late statesman Mitterrand will do little to help Hollande's chances, analysts said.
"Mitterrand always had people who stood up for him," Harris Interactive's Levy said. "No one is now clearly supporting Hollande, not even in his government."
One of Hollande's ministers, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed: "Who's going to stick his neck out for him in the primaries? Who would exhaust themselves for him?"
Even Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, a staunch Hollande loyalist, responded to questions about Hollande's interview book by saying: "'A President Shouldn't Say That' - the answer's in the title."
Born Oct 26, 1916, Mitterrand died in January 1996, just months after leaving power. Conservative Jacques Chirac succeeded him as president, followed by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 and Hollande in 2012.
Today's Socialist Party is so divided that journalists have asked Segolene Royal - who is the current environment minister, the losing Socialist candidate in 2007 and Hollande's former partner in private life - if she were ready to run in 2017.
"It's a search for someone to sacrifice himself ... If it was winnable, no one would come asking me," she told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper.
(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau, Michel Rose and Emmanuel Jarry; Editing by Tom Heneghan)