France Gears Up: Sarkozy v Hollande

By Alessandra Quattrocchi, October 27, 2011

François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy

François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy

With François Hollande beating Martine Aubry in the primaries, the battle for the Elysée Palace is now between a very unpopular Nicolas Sarkozy and a somewhat uninspiring François Hollande. The polls suggest an easy victory for the Socialists, but could they throw it all away, again?

I saw François Hollande for the first time in Rennes. It was the spring of 2002 and I was sitting in the press room backstage at the big auditorium where Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin was to give a big speech, ten days before the first round of the presidential elections in France. The atmosphere was decidedly low-key with none of the buzz that accompanies a successful campaign. (Jospin would be in fact be ruinously defeated, and that night he also got a can of red paint on his jacket thrown by a demonstrator). Hollande, a seemingly meek amiable man, strolled among the journalists, exchanging reassuring words, looking a bit like a thin Humpty Dumpty. I was hard put to recognize the First Secretary of the Socialist Party. What a bland character, I remember thinking. Besides, he has never even been a minister. I wonder why he is still first secretary? Today, ten years on, I wonder if this same François Hollande can really be the right man to defeat president Nicolas Sarkozy next spring. However, Hollande it will be: he won the Socialist primaries on 16 October, defeating Martine Aubry.

On October 19, on the other hand, Sarkozy managed to recapture the people’s attention with the birth of his daughter by Carla Bruni, his third wife and a former top model. It may seem petty to think the birth was staged, but the anticipation (nobody knew when the child would be born) and the seemingly endless media frenzy surrounding the clinic La Muette in Paris, strongly reminded everyone of the attention British people give to royal births. Admittedly though, this is the first time a child has been born to an incumbent President in modern France.

Moreover, with France in the throes of the economic crisis, Sarkozy, managed to give the impression of a statesman putting the country’s destiny before his personal life. He was with Carla just before the birth, then while the child was being born he left for Berlin where he met German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss new measures for the EFSF (rescue fund) in preparation for the EU summit the following Sunday. He was back in Paris at the clinic late at night, leaving after an hour of fatherly happiness. The name of the baby? “Her mother will decide”, he smiled. Carla announced on her website ( that the child would be called Giulia, a Roman name, spelled the Italian way, harking back to her roots.

This brief foray into celebrity gossip is in fact more important than it seems as Sarkozy has always been at great pains to match his private life with his public persona: dynamic, passionate, truthful but capable of renewal. Carla is his third wife. They married in 2008 just a few months after he divorced Cecilia, who had run off with another man and then returned just in time for the presidential campaign in 2007. The timing was suspect and in fact once Sarkozy won, she never even moved into the Elysée Palace. In modern France being a religious person is not a prerequisite for power, but being a family man for a Conservative is still important. Sarkozy already had three sons (the youngest is fourteen) and is now a grandfather through his son Jean. After Cecilia disappeared to New York City with her new love, the president quickly got himself another wife, younger, more glamorous and sophisticated than Cecilia and rich, richer than he is. People took bets on how long it would last, but certainly the couple seems solid and the new baby does his image no harm.

However, a child will hardly be enough to win back the hearts of the French people. So, who is going to win? The French are suckers for polls; they poll everything constantly, and the polls are looking very good for Hollande, in fact they predict a sure victory – while Sarkozy’s popularity ratings are very low, the new baby notwithstanding.

On 19 October a poll from the CSA Institute gave Hollande 62% of the vote in the second round if opposed to Sarkozy (who would get 38%). In the first round, Hollande would get 35%, Sarkozy 25%, Marine le Pen would reach 16% and the liberal leader François Bayrou, adored by the moderates, would get about the same as he did in 2007, 9% or so. Worse for Sarkozy: 61% of the interviewees currently say that they would not vote for him in the first round.

These bad ratings are partly an effect of the economic crisis. Much will depend on the next few months, but the omens are not good: the crisis is hitting hard – some statistics say one in seven people in France lives in poverty – and French banks are heavily exposed to Greek debt. The close relationship with Berlin makes Paris one of the two main leaders of the European Union; but it remains to be seen how much people consider that a desirable asset, even though France is taking a back seat in the relationship with Germany.

But economics are not everything: things started to go wrong for Sarkozy years ago. After falling out of favour with president Jacques Chirac in 1995, he managed such a complete comeback that he assembled the whole party around himself and got elected to great acclaim in 2007. Small, wiry, and so energetic that people compare him to a Duracell battery, he then spent just three days recuperating after the election. Unfortunately, he chose to recuperate on the Paloma, a yacht that was the property of his friend Vincent Bolloré, one of the richest businessmen in France. Accusations of conflict of interest over his good relationship with Bolloré and several other financial leaders followed. But much worse was the saga of Liliane Bettencourt, the rich and very elderly heiress of the L’Oreal empire. In 2010 rumours that Bettencourt had financed the Sarkozy campaign cost the Minister of Labour Eric Woerth his post, as he had been treasurer of the UMP at the time of the presidential campaign. At the end of August 2011, the scandal flared up again with renewed force: a witness confirmed having seen Sarkozy himself pocket cash handouts in the Bettencourt drawing room.

Now that is not just corrupt, it is tacky. What the French want from their president, first and foremost, is that he maintain the standard of French grandeur in the world. You may be corruptible, but you have to represent the country on the world stage. And many frown upon Sarkozy’s more extravagant behaviour, his lack of subtlety, his photographs in a bathing suit next to Carla. For years they have been calling him “le president bling bling”, although maybe “pinchbeck president” might be more appropriate.

Speaking of French grandeur, last year people did not like the fact that Home Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie had offered to help Tunisian president Ben Ali to quash the popular uprising, and that several members of the Conservative party UMP expressed their sympathies for those able leaders of North Africa confronted by rioting hooligans in the streets. Alliot-Marie had to resign when it became apparent that she had a good relationship with the Tunisian regime, and that the Arab spring was something more than a nasty uproar. Sarkozy hastened to offer his planes to start the Libyan offensive. In 2007 he had received Muammar Gaddafi with great honours in Paris, letting him pitch his tent next to the Elyseé Palace. No other country in Europe apart from Berlusconi’s Italy made such a show of courting Gaddafi. Times have truly changed. Only a few days ago, there was speculation that Gaddafi’s convoy was hit by a French Mirage jet and a US drone before he was dragged off half-dead by the rebels.

But there are five months until the election. The road is very, very long and as the French press warned the freshly elected Hollande on Monday 17th, the hard part starts now.

And what is Hollande banking on? Martine Aubry has promised to work loyally at his side. He is running on a compact platform which includes fiscal reform, creating 12,000 teaching jobs every year (60,000 during his mandate if elected), cutting the production of nuclear power in favour of developing alternative sources of energy, and extending the RSA to people under the age of 25 (anti-poverty benefit created in 2009). Conservative analysts have pounced upon his proposals claiming they would cost a minimum of 29.9 billion euros per year.

Glasses, flat black hair, pale-faced and slightly pear-shaped, Hollande looks reassuring, but not an effervescent type with either the stamina or the charisma to obtain the presidency. What he is trying to do is represent his blandness as quiet authority. Moreover, while the fight opposes the two traditional fields of French politics (Socialists versus Conservatives), there are other dangerous candidates, most notably the blonde ultra-rightwing Marine Le Pen, who is aiming to get into the second round.

The Socialist primary elections – an absolute first in France – were open to all sympathisers willing to pay a symbolic sum. On paper, Aubry had perhaps the better credentials. She had at least been a Minister (in fact, as minister of Labour in 2000 she was the “mother” of the famed 35-hour work week, such a popular reform that no subsequent Conservative government dared to dismantle it, although they did extend flexibility for overtime. And having lived in France before and after the law, I can guarantee that working a 35-hour week makes a huge difference to your life).

In a party destroyed by years of infighting and feelings of doom, however, the best candidate is not necessarily the most able: rather, the least controversial one, guaranteeing what the Left has been lacking for years: unity. Martine Aubry was herself involved four years ago in a vicious fight for the leadership of the party with Ségolène Royal, former minister, former partner of Hollande himself (and mother of his four children) and most of all former Presidential candidate against Sarkozy in 2007. She lost in the second round, partly because she had only half the party behind her. This power fight has affected Hollande too – and the two split when Royal ran for President – but he has taken something of a back seat in recent years, which has increased his credibility. And he is a man, which probably make people perceive him as a better bet to challenge Sarkozy.

As the whole world knows, the Socialists were really banking on another candidate. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former Jospin minister, is personable, well-known, and had the huge benefit of occupying an important financial international position as director of the IMF: both authoritative and far away from messy French politicking. He might have been Fortinbras jumping in to save the day in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Instead, in a matter of hours – be he innocent or guilty – after his arrest for the presumed rape of a chambermaid in a New York City Sofitel he became – in the eyes of the media – just another sexist pig incapable of controlling his sexual urges. The case has been dropped – because the victim herself has not been deemed a good enough witness – but the suspicion remains, and other scandals have emerged. Since then, every woman who has dipped her toes into French political circles is ready to tell her story about the time she heard about “DSK” and his sex drive. Hollande, by comparison, is a breath of fresh air. Bland? Sure. Good!

I didn’t start telling this story about the Rennes meeting in 2002 by chance. Because 2002 was the “annus horribilis” of the Socialist party in France. To understand the depth of the Socialist “désespoir” and their need of reassurance, we need to take a brief trip into the last century. Picture this: François Mitterrand, the last Socialist president, has left power in 1995 (and almost immediately died. The shadow of Mitterrand still hangs over the party). He was succeeded by the conservative Jacques Chirac, who Socialists detest after living through his mandates as Home Office Minister, Prime Minister and long-time Mayor of Paris. Because of the peculiar French presidential system, the year 1997 then saw an upheaval that made Socialists very happy. In France, the President is elected by the people and he is the head of the government, notwithstanding the presence of a Prime Minister. Until recently, Presidents were elected every seven years and Parliament every five. A technicality which often meant the People could impose a parliamentary majority on a President, and thus a government, of another political colour. It was called “co-habitation”.

(If you are into political systems: it does not look very different from what happens in the US, for instance, when the mid-term elections can make the minority a majority and vice-versa. But in the US, the President keeps his administration, albeit with a different majority in Congress. Whereas in France, the President at that time could find himself at the head of a government he had not chosen and actually would have liked to set fire to).

Cohabitation happened to President Mitterrand with conservative Jacques Chirac as his prime Minister. And it happened again in 1997, when President Chirac, convinced he could obtain a stronger majority, unexpectedly called political elections. The Socialist party led by Lionel Jospin won a blitzkrieg of a campaign. Jospin was Prime Minister and a stunned Chirac had to ‘cohabit‘ with him at the helm for another five years. A new Socialist era seemed on the brink.

Not surprisingly, Chirac later on changed the constitution. Now the presidential term is five years long, and political elections are held just two months after the Presidential vote, to ensure that the newly elected President can obtain a political majority.

In 2002, outgoing Prime Minister Jospin was convinced that he could reach the Elysée and eliminate Chirac from the history of France. He had very low approval ratings, but then so did Chirac. You will probably have surmised by now that politicians have a long life in France and are apt to be still around after twenty or thirty years, hopping from one post to another. Not so for poor Lionel, who was in for the shock of his life. On election night, when the preliminary reports for the first round started seeping in from the poll institutes, journalists were shell-shocked too. I was in the newsroom at AP in Paris and I don’t think I ever saw so many shattered faces – mine included. Chirac had come in first at just 19.88%. But second on the list wasn’t Jospin (who came in third). It was loud-mouthed, choleric, red-faced, outrageous Jean-Marie Le Pen, a right-wing leader whose racist politics have been so incendiary over the last thirty years that no Conservative from Chirac’s party would form alliances with his candidates even in local elections. How could it happen? France was in turmoil. Le Pen was obviously crowing with joy, explaining to reporters from all over the world that people had finally understood how dangerous immigration was, what risks it posed to French identity. He was right: his success was largely based on a growing feeling of insecurity, fuelled by the Conservatives in an effort to block Jospin, and by the difficulty that immigrants of North African descent were having integratng into French society. The fear of Islamic fundamentalism after 9/11 also played its part.

However, France reacted as well as it could. Chirac tried to make people forget he had not even managed to obtain 20 percent of the vote and portrayed himself as the saviour of the day. The conservative electorate of course went for him. But those who had chosen Jospin, or one of the other minor left-wing candidates in the first round, had to swallow a bitter pill and vote Chirac too. Thus Chirac won with over 82.21% of the vote, a Soviet-style result.

Ten years have passed and the Socialists have still not digested the shame of this débâcle. Nor did the 2007 election help: Ségolène Royal indeed went to the second round, but the final result wasn’t even close, with Sarkozy winning 53.06% of the vote. Now they have to put all their faith in Hollande. And the prevailing mood is that he’d better be worth it.

Given that France is such a progressive country let us for a moment take the feminist view. Many women had high hopes of Royal in 2007 and they voted for Aubry in the primary elections. But Hollande has blocked Martine Aubry’s way. His victory at the primaries might be attributable to the fact that Sarkozy had already beaten a female candidate in 2007, and the left-wing electorate wanted to play it safe. Now what? The main female candidate is Marine Le Pen, apparently a gentler version of her fierce father, but with much the same politics and the same anti-immigration, anti-European rhetoric. I met her a few months ago when she went to Lampedusa, to show her concern for the destiny of Europe while all those young North Africans disembarked on the Italian island ready to steal European jobs. I asked her if she thought France was mature enough to have a female president. She burst out laughing: “Of course! There is no country less ‘machiste’ (macho) than France. Eighty percent of French people say they are ready for a woman in power!”.

I don’t know where Marine Le Pen found those numbers, but I have feminist friends who were absolutely stunned to hear her claims as they feel that France is not even close to seeing a woman in the Elysée Palace. The one candidate who appeals to the feminists is the Green Party’s Eva Joly, whose chances are obviously non-existent. They are terrified by the possibility of Marine Le Pen going to the second round like her father did. And they are thinking of choosing the voix utile (the tactical vote) convincing themselves that this time they should go for Hollande in the first round. Just in case.

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