Francois Hollande – The Unknown President?
The Socialist candidate in the 2012 French Presidential election Francois Hollande received an official endorsement this week from his former rival, Presidential candidate and the mother of his four children Segolene Royal, as ‘official’ campaigning began on Monday ahead of the first round of voting on April 22nd. Yet little is known about Hollande outside of France; if you asked most Europeans what they know about France’s potential leader, you would most likely be met with head scratching and listless shrugs. This is in part because Hollande carries negligible international experience, and as such has been largely ignored by key European leaders on his campaign visits to Germany and the UK. His measured campaign and lack of strong Presidential personality, so beloved in post-Gaullist France, has been criticised by some as a failing to seize the initiative on his significant early poll lead, allowing his more experienced and aggressive opponent Sarkozy to make up ground.
Inevitably, President Sarkozy has relentlessly attacked his adversary on this issue, questioning his governing credentials and lack of political identity throughout the period of unofficial campaigning. Can France be entrusted to a man who has never even commanded a government ministry? Indeed, were it not for the well publicised international scandal that engulfed Dominique Strauss-Khan last year, leading to the initial favourite for the Socialist candidacy having to step aside, Hollande may well have not been here at all. This kind of personal assault has been typical of Sarkozy’s assertive political style, as his campaign has attempted to cover up the fact that he was the first president in the history of the French Fifth Republic to be less popular than their Prime Minister (Francois Fillon) and had a ‘recovering’ approval rating of merely 34% as of November 2011[i]. By comparison Hollande has largely refrained from mentioning Sarkozy at all, most significantly in his keynote speech at Bourget in January.
In times of great political uncertainty for both France and Europe, what one can be assured of is that if Hollande is elected come April, Europe will have to welcome a vastly different character from Sarkozy, the ‘bling-bling president’, to the top table. Hollande has pushed his image as an everyman of considered intellect, in comparison to the flashy showmanship and often erratic outbursts which have characterised Sarkozy’s time in office. Hollande has cast financial capitalism as his enemy and thus looked to capture much of the energy and disaffection of what Occupy would have called ‘the 99%’. In this mode Hollande has also pledged to implement a 75% top rate tax on earnings of over €1m and promised to renegotiate the European Treaty should he be elected.
Controversial as these policies have been, they have been par for the course in what has been a fractious, values lead, discourse light campaign, as neither candidate has been moved to any genuine discussion about the French economy, the countries budget deficit or the loss of its triple A credit rating last year. Hollande still has a 55% 2nd round poll lead[ii] but the gap is narrowing. Sarkozy has now overturned Hollande’s first round lead polling at 29% to Hollande’s 26.5%[iii]. If Hollande wishes to claim victory he may have to take the initiative, as passively allowing the wily Sarkozy and the far right to dominate the current discourse with predictable posturing over immigration and crime may leave him isolated. Unless he can redirect discussion and get serious on the economy, as well as answer some of his opponents and critics challenges by showing some Presidential character and coming out of his shell; Hollande may well find himself left in the wake of the Sarkozy show.