The French presidential election, which ended in a rather close victory for Socialist François Hollande over Nicolas Sarkozy, was fought largely on personal terms. Despite rhetorical flourishes during the campaign and what may appear to have been a sharp divergence over Europe’s austerity path, the ideological differences between these two center-leaning candidates amount to only a few degrees.
Perhaps a general desire for change is one key to understanding what happened: The only way to effect regime change in France in modern times is at the very top, through the presidential election. Perhaps it was time for alternance: the Socialists hadn’t been in power since 1995.
It has been difficult for Americans to understand the extreme désamour that developed between the French public and Mr. Sarkozy almost from day one of his presidency. The late Raymond Aron, the leading French strategic thinker of the post-war period, once described France as “a conservative country that dreams of revolution.”
That Sarkozy celebrated the night of his victory in 2007 at a posh Paris restaurant full of his rich friends and then sojourned on a yacht owned by a French millionaire, left an everlasting bad taste with the French people. (Here was the revolutionary side of the French psyche kicking in.)
The conservative side of the French psyche is aptly captured by the contemporary French historian Jacques Revel:
“The court has founded a lasting memory in the history of France…[There is] a renaissance of this curial phenomenon even in the midst of our democratic society,” he writes. This residue of “monarchical coloration,” he explains, is largely owed to the larger-than-life founder of “la Grande Nation” that is modern France, Charles de Gaulle.
When Sarkozy, early in his term, cursed out a spectator at an agricultural fair for refusing to shake hands with him, he was breaking the code of the dignity of the French “republican monarchy.” That and his constantly agitational, hand-waving style and habit of chewing out even his closest collaborators, made him come off as not up to the image of the French presidential office.
Along came François Hollande, looking as bland as a provincial bank manager and bearing the nickname of “Monsieur Flanby” (Mr. Pudding) for his softness of manner and his alleged “indecision,” so described by his former companion, Ségolène Royal, who is the mother of their four children.
In the fierce presidential debate of April 27, Mr. Hollande came off as anything but Mr. Flanby. Pugilistic to the point of carrying to extremes his constant interruptions of Sarkozy, he officially wound up in a draw, but in the opinion of this spectator, he seemed to have gained the upper hand by the end of their exchanges: In his incantatory recital of what he would do in various areas as president, Hollande reached a level of lyricism that the more tactical Sarkozy could not, or at any rate did not, match.
Sarkozy and the Americans
The fact that Sarkozy came before the US Congress and stated, “I want to be your friend,” and that he brought France back into the integrated command of NATO, gave him a pass with the American political class that could not be touched.
This had come after decades of reservation and distrust (interspersed with moments of solidarity, it is true) among the two “oldest allies”: from Charles de Gaulle’s revenge for his rejection by Franklin Roosevelt during World War II; to François Mitterrand’s reserve about American capitalism; to Jacques Chirac’s breaking ranks over George W. Bush’s preventive war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Is this “era of good feeling” between France and the United States now going to end? No. François Hollande is a very centrist leftist, a social democrat, and not a Marxist. A graduate of France’s elite schools (of which Sarkozy, trained as a lawyer, is not) Hollande has, I suspect, a formidable capacity to adapt and compromise.
The moment is a bit like that when the last Socialist president, Mr. Mitterrand, took power in 1981(and the mimicry practiced by Hollande with regard to his illustrious predecessor has been widely noticed). At the outset of his presidency, Mitterrand wanted to reassure the US, and he sent emissaries to Washington to do just that.
At the same time, we can expect a certain tacking on the part of the new Hollande regime toward traditional French values – in particular that of a certain distrust toward “liberalism” (which, in the European sense, means laissez-faire capitalism). On foreign policy, we can expect small changes: a year earlier withdrawal from Afghanistan (at the end this year instead of the close of 2013) but not much else.
On Israel, Sarkozy broke with the outdated Gaullist vulgate, strengthening ties. The Socialist Party has historically been a friend of Israel, though few in France (and elsewhere in Europe for that matter) can countenance the bellicose rhetoric of Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak.
Hollande goes to Germany
Hollande’s immediate problem will not be with the US but with Germany – his first foreign destination as president. He has promised to renegotiate a European Union treaty mandating deficit and debt limits. He wants to inject more growth into the pact, but the likely result will be a separate add-on of measures (whose effectiveness remains to be seen), rather than a change in the pact itself (which German Chancellor Angela Merkel firmly opposes).
If truth be told, though Ms. Merkel and Sarkozy worked well together, the personal incompatibility between the hyperactive French president and the phlegmatic German chancellor was always there.
Unfortunately for Hollande, he will be forced to heed the strict economic and fiscal realities imposed by the markets, somewhat reminiscent of the about face Mitterrand performed nearly 30 years ago, when after an initial period of public spending and nationalizations, he was compelled a return to a policy of financial “rigor.”
In conceding the election, Sarkozy asked his supporters to “respect” the new president, and then wished him good luck “amid the challenges.” Indeed, the challenges remain. In Hollande, the French have a kinder, gentler president, who is unlikely to chart a dramatic new course. Whether that will make the challenges any more bearable to the people of France – or their new president – remains to be seen.
Charles Cogan had a 37-year career with the CIA, culminating in Paris as chief, 1984-1989. He is an associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is the author of “French Negotioating Behavior: Dealing with ‘la Grande Nation’” (United States Institute of Peace Press, 2003).