ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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La vie en rose? François Hollande and the French

The expectations are high: after all, François Hollande is France's first socialist president since François Mitterrand left office in 1995. But the new president is likely to find the French electorate as much of a challenge as the continuing Eurozone crisis.

It is a common misconception that the French are a naturally left-leaning people. To outsiders, it seems self-evident that the country that bequeathed to the world the French Revolution, the Paris Commune and the intellectual engagement of Jean-Paul Sartre must be a crucible of left-wing values. The contemporary image of France as a land of inveterate and cantankerous trade unionists has merely reinforced such an interpretation.


On closer inspection, however, much of this haze melts away. It is true that France has always had what the historian Tony Judt called “a culture of the left” but it is one that has long been marginalised politically and rejected by the majority of the French population. Even the apparent potency of the trade union movement is a myth: France has one of the lowest rates of trade union membership in Europe. The bitterness of French strikes and the anger of their rhetoric is a consequence of their weakness rather than their strength.


This reality has been reflected in French voting patterns. In the 54 years since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958, there has been a left-wing majority in parliament for 15 years and a left-wing president – the elusive François Mitterrand – for only 14. More worrying still is that, of the three left-wing governing coalitions in parliament, none has been re-elected. Mitterrand himself only managed to persuade voters to give him a second term in 1988 by pushing questions of ideology as far into the background as possible. He knew that to draw too heavily on the culture of the left was to court disaster.


It was a lesson he had learned as leader of the non-Communist left in 1968 when the parliamentary elections that were held immediately after the ‘events’ of May 1968 – the biggest student and labour protests in postwar France – resulted in a crushing victory for the right. Even though they were not in power at the time, both the Communist and non-Communist left were obliterated from the electoral map. It took a decade to recover the deficit and 15 years before the left tasted power. The dissatisfaction with the president Charles de Gaulle and the critique of French conservatism that permeated the 1968 movement did not translate into a vote for the left. As nineteenth-century republicans had always suspected, the French were a people of order and not revolution.


More than anything, then, it was this weighty history of defeat and marginalisation that made François Hollande’s victory noteworthy. At a stroke, the self-styled ‘Mr. Normal’ wiped away the humiliations of past electoral failures. He gave hope that the Socialist Party might finally emerge from the relative obscurity of local politics (where, in contrast, it has done well in the past twenty years) into the national spotlight. A good proportion of the crowd that greeted the newly-elected president on the Place de la Bastille in Paris on the evening of May 6 would not have remembered the last time France was governed by a left-wing president. But they were willing to take a jump into the unknown.


Why this sudden change of heart? The first reason was the unpopularity of Nicolas Sarkozy. This was a constant refrain during the campaign. The man who seemed to embody an irresistible dynamism in 2007, looked drawn and defeated in the traditional presidential debate between the first and second round of the election. Neither his abrasive tone, which had so pleased his right-wing supporters, nor his openness to the private sector, which had endeared him to an increasingly liberal professional middle-class, seemed like assets. Just as the tide turned for his Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi, so it did for the French president: the ‘bling-bling’ had become a liability.


The paradox is that Sarkozy was genuinely something new. His hyperactive, ideologically-charged yet inconsistent presidential style fitted none of the classic models. He did not have the invincible gravitas of de Gaulle; he could not be the intellectual ‘father of the nation’ like Mitterrand; and he failed to claim the mantle of his immediate predecessor, Jacques Chirac, who frequently played the card of national unity. The one president with whom he might be compared is the ill-fated Valéry Giscard D’Estaing, who ruled from 1974 to 1981. The parallels are striking. Giscard D’Estaing also began his presidency by promising a ‘liberal’ break with the past but ended it embroiled in scandal and courting the right-wing vote. And, like Sarkozy, Giscard D’Estaing failed to win a second term.


Of course, a key difference is that, in 1981, the extreme-right was a negligible political force. This is no longer true today. In fact, if there was one winner in this election, it was the leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen. With 17.9% of the vote in the first round, she did better than her father when he squeezed through to the second round in 2002 (16.8%). Moreover, Marine Le Pen’s success was in an election for which there was a very high turnout (79.5%). After the first round, she could boast of having received the support of almost 6.5 million French voters.


This was more than a protest vote. The Front National has succeeded in implanting itself firmly in the French electoral landscape. Until now, the two-round structure of the legislative elections has mostly kept it out of parliament, but, in many French regions, the Front National regularly receives more than 20% of the vote. It is surely only a matter of time before the party will be large enough to create a bloc in parliament, especially if the centre-right disintegrates and former centre-right candidates are drawn into local electoral alliances with the far-right.


Dealing with the extreme-right is likely to be one of Hollande’s main challenges. Its electorate is a fickle but potent combination of far-right extremists, rural conservatives, deindustrialised and unemployed workers, and descendents of the pieds-noirs (the French settlers who were forced to leave Algeria at independence in 1962). This odd conglomerate of post-industrial and post-colonial France has come to view political machinations in Paris with deep hostility. And they will almost certainly turn on the new Socialist president if he is ‘soft’ on crime or immigrants. Given that one of the key pieces of legislation proposed by Hollande is the right to vote in local elections for non-EU nationals, the Front National already has a ready-made campaign.


But the extreme-right is a reminder of an even more troubling reality: unemployment. For structural reasons that long predate the recent economic crisis, France has had chronically high unemployment since the 1980s, especially amongst its young population. This has combined with high rates of urban class segregation and a notoriously rigid education system to create long-term social exclusion. In his rhetoric at least, Hollande has recognised the need to refocus attention on France’s youth. Indeed, this was one of the few discernible ideological differences between the two candidates. It was a tactic that the Socialist candidate in 2007 – Ségolène Royal – had also tried but it had failed. Now Hollande has a real chance to implement imaginative policies to tackle the roots of youth unemployment.


Unfortunately, he is likely to be hampered by two things: his reliance on the public-sector vote and the omnipresence of austerity. The former is a reality for all Socialist candidates: their core support base resides overwhelmingly in France’s vast public sector. Any attempts to change school curricula or employment legislation will be met with bitter opposition. Sarkozy’s pension reforms in 2010 were, for his supporters, one of his crowning achievements, but they permanently alienated the public sector and no doubt contributed to his defeat. How Hollande manages the expectations of this group will be crucial to his survival: the French may lean to the right but they are also deeply attached to their sprawling and interventionist state.


The challenge of austerity will be the most urgent. Hollande has come to power at a time of acute political and economic tension in Europe. Any false move and he will be punished by an electorate both fearful of and hostile to the politics of austerity. He must secure France’s relationship with Germany and defend a European model to a French electorate that has seen an unprecedented rise in Euroscepticism since the ‘no’ to the referendum on the European constitution in 2005.


Two of Hollande’s most important influences – Mitterrand and former head of the European Commission Jacques Delors – were deeply committed Europhiles. They saw in Europe a way to salvage France’s state-driven ‘social model’ and restore the prestige of a French socialism that had been battered in the economic downturn of the early 1980s. It is their legacy that has produced today’s European Union. It will be up to their protégé to hold together a European project that threatens to come apart from above and from below. It is an unenviable task.


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