This post is for my American friends and readers. I know I have some. Between one and five, out of every ten, depending on the topics. Let me thank them right here. For them, and for everyone else who can read English, I’ll try to explain how it is possible for someone like François Hollande to have become the president of a nation which does not look so big from outside, but has a long and proud history, and remains the fifth more powerful nation on earth!
If the name Hollande is fairly new to them, they shouldn’t feel bad. Hollande is not a newcomer in France, but he certainly is a newcomer so high in the game. And actually, until pretty much a year ago, very few, not to say no one, in France or out, predicted he would have a “national destiny”. Until a certain incident in New York City on May 14 2011, everyone predicted Dominique Strauss Kahn was the man who would succeed Nicolas Sarkozy.
Indeed “who would succeed” Sarkozy! Because if the name of the socialist presidential candidate was still an unknown then, the fate of the election was pretty much a given. With low popularity ratings, with the media (except for the daily Le Figaro) pounding on his dreadful presidential, or actually not so presidential, style, with a debt and a euro zone crisis that had pretty much annihilated any prospect for growth and driven unemployment past the 10% mark, when Sarkozy had assured the country in 2007 he would bring it down to 5%, his defeat was regarded as a certainty. In fact some wondered if he would even run!
And so it goes for presidential elections. Sometimes you win, sometimes the other guy loses. And sometimes it takes extraordinary and wholly unexpected circumstances to make you a winner in the game. Such is the case for François Hollande.
Whichever star shone high in the sky on that august 12th 1954 night that saw him come to life in the city of Rouen, in the Normandy region of France, known for Camembert and Calvados, it certainly has protected him, so far, and guided him wisely.
His father was a doctor, who supported French Algeria, and his mom, a social worker, leaning left. François grew up in the residential part of town and went to a catholic private school. When he was a teenager the family moved to Neuilly Sur Seine. Yes indeed, the very same neck of the woods as Sarkozy. François was a top student. His education is as good as it gets in France: law school, HEC (business school), Sciences Po, and the ENA, the “ National School of Administration” that has trained the top students to become the country’s governing elite in the unique bureaucratic way France sees fit to govern.
By the time François got out of school, the other François, Mitterrand that is, had become president. The year was 1981 and Hollande took various positions with the socialist administration. For fifteen years he learned the trade, had four children with Segolene Royal, a fellow socialist met at the ENA, and rose through the ranks. In 1995 he was Lionel Jospin’s communication director during the then “premier secrétaire” of the socialist party’s first failed presidential campaign.
Chirac’s disastrous decision two years later to dissolve the National Assembly gave the socialist another shot at power. Jospin became prime minister and Hollande succeeded him as “first secretary” of the socialist party. In that responsibility Hollande became known for his evenhandedness, and for his refusing to take sides. He also scored points for being politically canny. With a nose for avoiding unpopular decisions. For example, he advised Jospin against trying to reform the retirement system, even though it badly need to be, prior to the 2002 presidential election as it undoubtedly would have undermined his chances of winning.
As it turned out, such illuminating foresight was unnecessary. Jospin never made it to the second round.
Hollande carried on. And became one of a half dozen socialist leaders claiming a right to his mantle as next leader of the party. His opponents had better looking professional resumés, like Dominique Strauss Kahn and Laurent Fabius, or they had more zest, like Segolène Royal, his now estranged former companion, and Martine Aubry, or they were altogether more sparkling like the nasty-sounding Jean Luc Melenchon and the ambitious young Arnaud Montebourg. Yet Hollande tugged along. Keeping that innocuous smile on his face and never allowing himself to be rattled by the noise those hyperactive challengers were making.
In 2007 though, he did not even run for the socialist nomination. As if awed by the aura that surrounded Segolène Royal’s early presidential campaign, he did not even put up a fight and chose to wait his turn.
Did he foresee Sarkozy’s victory? Did he think he’d stand a better chance five years later? Not really. Back in 2006 and 2007, Holland was not perceived as a credible national leader. He was good with the party. He took part in the writing of the platform. But that was it. And he did his best to appear happy with it!
We know what happened. Segolène Royal lost badly. A fight that cost her the presidency and also her credibility. When she tried her luck again at presidential politics within the socialist party, the members rejected her soundly. So for 2012 it was down to three people: Aubry, Strauss Kahn and Hollande. Strauss Kahn committed political suicide. Then Aubry just couldn’t get herself to smile and say something nice. So the socialists picked François Hollande.
And finally, the man no one believed in, the man his fellow socialists had ruthlessly criticized, with words much harsher (like “leftist mush” or “milk pudding man”!) than any used by their political adversaries from the right UMP, that man, was standing on the threshold of the Elysée Palace. If only he could carry himself without tripping over his own shadow, the presidency would be his.
Wisely he did. And managed to do much more, actually. In dire times he promised what every politician always promises, better days. And voters believed him. He promised an appeased political climate. Not that France was at war, but the voters seemed to need that soothing voice and prospect. He said he’d teach those Germans to be more mindful of the rest of Europe, and the voters took his word for it. And in doing so he gained what’s called “presidential stature”.
And the whole time he focused not on the coming five years, but on the past five years and relentlessly pounded on his adversary for his dreadful economic record.
When voting day came, there was very little suspense left. In the final days of the campaign Sarkozy had launched a desperate effort to try and come in first on the first round but he failed. And when that failed, all observers knew what the outcome would be two weeks on. Still on May 6th 2012 even though he garnered 52% of the final tally, there were 7% blank votes! These are discarded in the French calculating system. They do not count toward the final tally. So it remains that the improbable François Hollande was elected with the support of less than 50% of the voters who actually cast a ballot.