The strange death of Francois Hollande

17th September, 2012 11:45 am

Whatever happened to Francois Hollande? You remember: the “Monsieur Normal” who ended the French Left’s seventeen-year exile from the Palais de l’Élysée, the great white hope of the European Left, the donnish career politician who proved that wonkish types from the heart of the party machine could win elections.

He’s been in office a little more than a hundred days but his administration is already showing signs of wear and tear. His approval rating has already dropped below 50%, and the most enduring story of his first hundred days was the ongoing spat between the mother of his children and his girlfriend.

The 10th of June was a near-perfect day for the French Left; they had stormed the gates of the Elysée and now looked to be on the verge of a majority in the National Assembly. There was just one sour note; Segolene Royal, the Parti Socialiste’s candidate in the 2007 Presidential elections and former partner of Francois Hollande, faced a difficult run-off in the constituency of La Rochelle against the independent candidate Olivier Falorni. Royal faced a broad coalition of resistance in La Rochelle; true believers who felt she ran to the centre in 2007, local bigwigs who saw her as a carpetbagger, and opportunistic members of the centre-right UMP. In a tight election, defeat in La Rochelle could have made the difference between a Socialist majority and a hung parliament. Enter Valerie Trierwaller – journalist for Paris Match and the President-Elect’s girlfriend – who tweeted: “Congratulations to Olivier Falorni: a good local man who has done nothing wrong.”.

Reactions in the French press and the Parti Socialiste ranged from incredulous to horrified. Le Monde – a French daily that could have the unofficial motto of ‘never knowingly understated’ – described it as an ‘existential crisis’ for Mme Trierwaller. It may not have been quite as bad as all that, but it did in one moment undo all the good work that had been done during the election campaign to paint Francois Hollande as an ordinary Jean. His partner taking to Twitter to attack a member of his own party? That seemed a little too Sarkozyish.

More importantly, it drained attention from the Hollande administration’s early successes. No-one noticed the first gender-equal Cabinet in Western Europe, or the repeal of Sarkozy’s populist anti-immigrant measures. Instead, they focussed on the battle of Hollande’s women, and by the time attention had swung back to the issues, they were implementing a program of austerity.

That’s President Hollande’s other problem, too. Despite what some overly-excitable British commentators said at the time, Hollande’s victory did not mean an end to austerity, any more than a safe word means an end to BDSM. If anything, Hollande’s task was made more difficult, because unlike his rightist predecessor, he had to preserve the key foundations of the state and implement a programme of cuts. Predictably, the results have been unpopular.

What might happen to Hollande? For all his temporary unpopularity, defeat in 2017 still looks unlikely. The UMP is riven, and, apart from Marine Le Pen, the Right lacks a credible figure who might lead it into the next Presidential election. Still, it could be a long and ugly half-decade for the French Left.

This Week’s European Talking Points

  • What was the result of the 2012 Dutch election? It’s a little early to tell. In the end, the Samson surge wasn’t quite enough for the Labour Party, who finished just behind Mark Rutte’s Liberals. It was a disastrous night for the Socialists, who finished in fourth despite having led for long periods of the campaign. No-one is yet sure of exactly what will result from the election, and currently, the job of negotiating a coalition lies with the centre-right Liberals.
  • Also headed for an inconclusive election are Germany’s Social Democrats. With Sigmar Gabriel out of the picture, they have no-one available with the clout to really eat into the CDU’s vote. Expect a repeat of the grand coalition of 2006-09.

  • There is growing support amongst elites for a second Mario Monti-led government in Italy, although the idea is significantly less popular amongst ordinary Italians. Romano Prodi, of the left-leaning Democrats, has suggested that a ‘victorious party’ may call on the technocrat Prime Minister again. The election is in the spring.

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