France election: How Francois Hollande won

Francois Hollande (6 May 2012)
Image caption Francois Hollande is the "quintessential anti-Sarkozy"

Here are some of the merits that have brought Francois Hollande to election victory: intelligence, patience, consistency, likeability, and a hidden vein of steel.

And here is another: exceptionally good fortune.

Events have conspired to aid this patently decent, but patently inexperienced, socialist along the rocky path to the Elysee.

First there was the unexpected sinking of the party favourite, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in a lurid sex scandal - a bolt from the blue if ever there was one.

Then when Francois Hollande was chosen as candidate in his place, it was by a Socialist Party totally fixated (against all precedent) on the need to show unity.

The knives were stowed.

Third, when it came to the campaign, he was up against a man whose personal unpopularity was legend.


Nicolas Sarkozy had led the country through the worst economic crisis in living memory. His promises of a better life had come to nothing.

By the left he was despised as the uncultured friend of the rich; by the far right as the man who broke his word; by liberals as the president who began to reform then stopped.

If ever there was a leader waiting for a walloping, it was he.

But Mr Hollande's luck didn't end there. In mid-campaign something bizarre started happening in Europe.

The world's applause for the Sarkozy-Merkel axis, and their combined efforts in staving off a euro crisis, suddenly dried up.

The words "austerity" and "budget discipline" were eclipsed by another word: "growth".

Little did it matter that the need for austerity in the eurozone had not simply vanished; or that monumental rows lay ahead about how to achieve this cherished "growth".

The fact was that out of nowhere Mr Hollande's Keynesian nostrums were suddenly in tune with the times. Such runs of good fortune do not strike often, and who can blame Francois Hollande for seizing his?

'Placid' Hollande

Indeed from another aspect, it is not so much that the circumstances have fitted Francois Hollande - it is also Francois Hollande who has answered to events.

First of all he is the quintessential anti-Sarkozy.

Mr Hollande corresponds to a public demand for someone who is as different as possible from the outgoing president.

If Nicolas Sarkozy was to his enemies "l'agite" (the agitated one), Francois Hollande is "le placide".

At a deeper level, though, Mr Hollande also responds to the times. As Gerard Courtois - a pro-Hollande journalist - wrote in Le Monde, the president-to-be is a kind of "anti-hero".

Previous French presidents have been either old warriors like Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac or impetuous newcomers like Nicolas Sarkozy and Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

But by being so unremarkable - so "normal" - Mr Hollande fulfils a new prevailing mood. In Gerard Courtois's words, this consists of "a disenchantment towards politics… and a fatalistic acceptance of the limitations of political action in the face of the economic crisis".

France's problems

The big question now is whether the qualities that appear to have brought Mr Hollande into the Elysee will serve him as well once he is there. Because the problems that lie ahead are truly enormous.

He will govern a country at a turning-point in its history. As the historian and economist Nicolas Baverez says: "By 2025, we will know if France still ranks as a leading nation in the world."

Decisions will have to be taken about what parts of the prized social model need to be preserved; and what parts are simply unaffordable.

Today France has unemployment of more than 10%. Public spending is 56% of GDP. Public debt will hit 90% of GDP this year.

In 2012 the country needs to raise 180bn euros on the bond markets. Next year it needs 200bn.

As Mr Baverez says: "There is no way that France will be able to keep borrowing the same volumes at the same rates over the coming years.

"That is why there is no alternative to austerity - which will be either decided voluntarily by our national authorities, or imposed by the markets and Europe."

But if tough reforms are inevitable, the fact remains that Francois Hollande has not mentioned this once in his campaigning. Certainly he has spoken of controlling the budget deficit - bringing it to zero by 2017 is the manifesto pledge.

But the argument that this might require painful choices affecting his core constituency among the urban poor and public sector workers has been assiduously avoided.

For Sophie Pedder, Paris correspondent of The Economist magazine: "What is worrying is not so much that he won't have the room for manoeuvre to carry out his promises like the 60,000 new teachers.

"It is that he has not in any way prepared the voters for the inevitable disappointment. That is politically a high-risk strategy."

One other thing. He may have won the election, but Francois Hollande does not come in riding a wave of popular support.

Considering the fate reserved for other European leaders through the last years of crisis, Nicolas Sarkozy did remarkably well: only a few hundred thousand votes separated him from Francois Hollande in round one.

Added to which is the awkward fact that the fastest growing party in France is the National Front. The country, in other words, is not moving leftwards. If anything, it's moving to the right.

In one of his famous maxims, the great 17th Century French aphorist Francois de la Rochefoucauld said this: "Il faut de plus grandes vertus pour soutenir la bonne fortune que la mauvaise." Translated this means: "We need greater virtues to sustain good than evil fortune."

Francois Hollande's good fortune has served him well. Now is the time for those virtues.