Although dubbed "Monsieur Ordinary" by the Guardian, presidential candidate François Hollande has a cool head, an extremely fine wit and vast political experience. It would be an error to mistake his unassuming manner for dullness. Sarkozy's era of "mauvais gout" looks set to end.
If there’s one thing the French really detest, it’s “le mauvais gout”. This aspect of the French character touches all five senses and is so all-pervasive that even medicines have to taste delicious, and houses are artificially scented to avoid the unspeakable horror of bad smells. Even finding toilet paper that doesn’t smell of an approximation of roses or pine forests is a major undertaking. Their laundry detergent is so full of chemical perfumes that sleeping in freshly washed sheets can give you a sore throat.
Their passionate dislike of bad smells, bad tastes, bad dressing, bad behaviour is really all about what they consider to be the art of elegant living. One famous French actress has been quoted as saying “Beauty is a form of respect for others”.
But the French are as susceptible as anyone to the possibility of a leader who knows what is needed and gives the appearance of having the courage to achieve it. That is how Nicolas Sarkozy managed to get elected. He touched a chord in the desperate hearts of the French voters with his straight talking and apparently clear vision of what French society needed. His much-vaunted endless energy and determination seemed to be, at last, just what the doctor ordered. In addition, in his pre-election speeches he declared several times that he was only seeking one mandate because that was all he needed to get France into shape and into the modern world.
The post-election honeymoon period was short-lived. Sarkozy’s mega-rich friends, his extravagant spending and his gossip-column lifestyle soon put the French voters backs up. It quickly became clear to most of the French population that his interests were inextricably linked to those of his wealthy friends. At a time when the world economy was sliding down the drain, he reduced the scope of the wealth tax. When he became president, he kept the salary he had received as Minister for the Economy for the first six months, then arranged a salary increase of 172% in January 2008. His contempt for the working population has become well-known: after making a deal with the unions to limit the inconveniences due to strikes, he froze the basic wage for low-paid workers. His efforts to put his son, Jean, at the head of Epad, the rich and powerful development agency for La Défense, were described by The Times as “an astonishing act of nepotism by Nicolas Sarkozy”. Jean at the time was repeating second-year law at the Sorbonne, having repeated first year as well.
None of this has been lost on the French public, nor were his blatant – and mostly successful – attempts to remove all his most dangerous socialist opponents by offering them high positions elsewhere. Former IMF head, Dominique Strauss-Kahn is the most famous example, but not the only one.
However, for the French one of the most distressing aspects of Nicolas Sarkozy’s public persona has been his almost constant presence in the gossip press, not to mention his appalling gaffes, the most flagrant being when, at the obligatory presidential tour of the Salon de l’Agriculture in Paris, he replied to a man who refused to shake his hand, “Casse-toi, pauvre con” which approximates to “Piss off, dickhead”. This is all deeply offensive to French notions of what constitutes correct presidential behaviour and “le bon gout” which is an essential trait for someone whose role includes keeping up the international French reputation of style and elegance. One doesn’t behave poorly in public, nor fling one’s money about. Fundamentally, although the French would never say this out loud, Sarkozy lacks class.
Enter François Hollande, the recently appointed presidential candidate for the French socialists. The Guardian has referred to his appointment as the triumph of “Monsieur Ordinary”. This is partly due to the new American-style of presidency introduced by Sarkozy, where gossip, scandal and babies have replaced serious political debate. François Hollande is not a flamboyant character but it would be a serious error to take his unassuming manner for dullness.
Hollande, at 57, is the product of middle-class professional parents and the higher education system so valued by the French. His tertiary qualifications are impressive, and while not in the top ten of his year, he came out of the Ecole Nationale de l’Administration (ENA) with good marks. His handling of the debacle after Jospin’s humiliating defeat in the 2002 presidential first round was impressive. While the socialist party was in complete disarray, he held the shaken factions together and effectively prevented its disintegration.
He has a cool head, an extremely fine wit, vast political experience, including a stint as councillor at the French Court of Audit (which verifies the accounts of government and public and private institutions), and immense discretion. When he and his partner, ex-presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, separated after Sarkozy’s victory in 2007, the press did their best to whip it into a scandal. It is to both Hollande and Royal’s credit that they failed. Like the old style French politicians – i.e. all of them prior to Sarkozy – his private life is kept strictly out of the limelight.
Hollande is 174 cms tall, which makes him below average height, but still slightly taller than Sarkozy’s 167 cms. However, while Sarkozy has never come to terms with his failure to grow, and stands on tiptoes in group photographs, Hollande has joked that his shortness means he’s harder to knock over. He has been re-elected Secretary of the Socialist party three times, no mean feat in a party renowned for its wrangles and internal disputes. There is reason to believe that this longevity is due to Hollande’s political acumen and ability to keep the troops united, not because he is the least bothersome of the pack.
At ENA, students’ bedside reading matter is Machiavelli’s The Prince and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Hollande, the quiet achiever, has been biding his time and keeping a low profile, waiting for the ripest moment. His opponent seems to be doing his best to assist him.
The blow-out of the costs of running l’Elysée and ministerial budgets has not helped. Sarkozy had announced with great fanfare that he would pare back the number of ministries to save money, which he did, but at the same time creating a small army of very highly paid minions to support the reduced number of ministers. The result has been the most expensive presidency in history. Hollande has been quoted as saying, “I hate the rich. There, I’ve said it.” Most French voters would heartily agree, particularly in the current economic climate with more and more French workers scratching to survive.
Next year’s election looks like being an easy win for him, according to all recent opinion polls. But that’s what Lionel Jospin believed, in 2002. It is possible that Sarkozy, the great media manipulator, will use National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, the same way that Jacques Chirac used her father, Jean-Marie in 2002. In the lead-up to that election the media was flooded with stories which fed the middle class French terror of how dangerous France was becoming, the subtext being that the socialists would be feeble on internal security issues.
This has also been one of Sarkozy’s favourite themes. The difference now is this: before 2002, most voters used the first round as a protest vote against the two major parties, in the blithe belief that in any case the extreme right and left-wing candidates would never get through to the second round which would be, as usual, a fight between the two main parties. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s toppling of the favourite, Lionel Jospin, in 2002 has changed all that, and most voters would not risk that happening again.
As well as that, François Hollande was very well-placed to witness the repercussions of a divided left. In 2002, there were several left candidates with no chance of becoming president, the most harmful being the centre-left independent, Jean-Pierre Chevènement. In the first round, over 30% of votes went to left candidates but Jospin only got 17%. Hollande has done well to ensure that this will not happen again.
This time, it’s Sarkozy who should worry about a divided vote: his arch-rival on the right, Dominique de Villepin has announced he will run as an independent. De Villepin is everything Sarkozy is not – tall, elegant, well-read, a published writer, and an eloquent speaker. Their deep hostility to each other is well-known – de Villepin allegedly calls Sarkozy “le nain” (the dwarf). While he is unlikely to win, he will certainly attract voters from the right who wish to see a return to a more traditional conservative style.
The French are tired of reading about their president in the gossip columns, of putting up with the jokes in the international media about his lack of finesse, and the impression he has left of talking big and achieving small. There’s been a bit too much “blah blah” and a bit too much “mauvais gout” in the last 5 years, and François Hollande epitomises the discreet style usually favoured by voters. A lot of hard lessons have been learnt in the last two presidential elections. In the next one, the odds are looking good for a socialist win.