Of Presidents and Penguins


François Hollande at his inauguration, May 15th, 2012

by John Gaffney

One year ago today, during François Hollande’s inauguration as the seventh President of the French Fifth Republic, it poured with rain all day long. Inexplicably, no one offered him a raincoat or the protection of an umbrella. He spent the day’s ceremony drenched to the bone, his glasses steamed up, his sopping wet suit and shirt flattened against him. It was a sign. It has been raining ever since.

France is the fifth richest country in the world, and the world’s sixth largest exporter. It receives the third highest inward foreign investment. It has, after the United States, the largest diplomatic network in the world, is a member of the UN Security Council, and is the most visited country in the world (over 80 million visitors last year). It is a major nuclear power, and is the true founder of the European Union.

In the twelve months since François Hollande’s election to the presidency, France has been stumbling towards major social unrest and upheaval and is – as we write – heading towards political chaos. Only a year into his five year term, François Hollande is close to becoming a lame-duck, if not a dead-duck, President. He still carries the legitimacy of direct election, but only twelve months in, not a shred of authority. Some argue that even his legitimacy has crumbled, so unpopular has he become. At the May 8th, 2013 commemorations of the Allied victory of 1945, Hollande was there, of course, as was his government, the military and the veterans, but the Champs Elysées was deserted. The year before – to show how near to the people he was, and as he had throughout his election campaign – he went walkabout into the crowds, shaking hands and kissing babies. Now, there was no one to shake hands with, no women to faire le bisou with, and no babies to kiss. There weren’t even any Japanese tourists. How did we get here, in just one year?

It is not as if he had no political power base. François Hollande, the Socialist Party’s candidate, was elected President in May 2012, ousting the deeply unpopular President Nicolas Sarkozy. Hollande saw himself as a kind of antithesis of Sarkozy, a ‘Mr Normal’ to Sarkozy’s ‘Mr Bling’. The Socialist left had never been so strong politically. Upon his election, the National Assembly was dissolved, and in the June 2012 parliamentary elections, with its radical left allies, the Socialists won an outright majority. They therefore controlled the presidency, the government, both houses of parliament, the regions and all the big towns and cities. Neither the right nor the left had ever held such power. Hollande held in his hands a royal flush no one had ever dreamed of, and he could have done whatever he wanted. And yet in his first twelve months in office, President Hollande and his government did virtually nothing while everything got worse and worse… and worse. Why?

There were lots of things they could and should have done, and lots of other things they would much better have avoided doing. Why such potential power to change France forever and yet such impotence to do anything at all; why such inaction, such mismanagement, and above all, such bad leadership? That is the lesson, the question raised by this catastrophic year. Hollande would have done well to have heeded Machiavelli’s Prince:

A wise prince then…should never be idle in times of peace but should industriously lay up stores of which to avail himself in times of adversity so that when Fortune abandons him he may be prepared to resist her blows.

There is a long list of reasons to explain the enigma, and each reason is partially true. For years, the left did not expect to win. There had developed the idea that perhaps it could not. Since 1958, only one Socialist, François Mitterrand, had ever held the office. But by 2009, President Sarkozy was vulnerable because he was so unpopular. It was assumed that the man to beat him was the Socialist head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. In a hotel room in New York in May 2011, his political career came to a sudden, calamitous end. The party had no credible candidate. Hollande, the former and eminently forgettable First Secretary of the party, became almost by default the accidental candidate, the best they could come up with.

But more serious was the fact that the party had no ideas. And no strategy, no vision, no policies holding the party together and moving it forward. For the previous ten years, at the national level, the party was just an irrelevance, going nowhere, its leaders fighting with one another like cats in a bag. Just as importantly, the party had theorised nothing; not the economy, not society, nor the regime itself, and certainly not the presidency they coveted, nor what a strange multi-faceted institution it was. They had had ten years and more to rethink it and themselves, French society and the regime, yet they did nothing to prepare for power.

Hollande’s successful election campaign in 2012 was based quite simply upon exploiting the quite visceral public dislike of the hyperactive, inconsistent and noisy Nicolas Sarkozy. Hollande was in all things the antithesis of Sarkozy: modest not bling, moral not immoral, uninterested in money, simple and ‘normal’, as opposed to part of the celebrity culture and one of the beautiful people; calm not prone to hyperventilating with rage, exemplary and attentive to people, unlike the incumbent, who was interested only in banquets and yachts.

Whether or not Hollande believed this myth, made of partial truths and many misperceptions – for such differences are stylistic, and politics – and people – are more complicated than such Manichean notions suggest. As Hollande would soon learn, the result was that he had given no thought to how to ‘inhabit’ this strange office, and how to be the things he claimed he was. The fundamental problem with his holier-than-thou approach is that it actually enhanced the main feature of the French Republic that Hollande was trying to ‘tame’, namely, its emphasis upon the personal and upon character: what Hollande did by putting a searchlight upon Sarkozy’s faults, was to walk into the Elysée Palace with every searchlight trained upon him; upon him and his claim to exemplary moral status, and modesty, as well as upon the idea that these qualities alone would deliver France from its growing sense of economic and social turmoil.

After his election, he appointed his government. As a gesture, everyone including the President took a salary cut. There were a lot of them to do so, 38 ministers in all. There was also gender parity, a first in French politics. It was as if the new, exemplary President would now transform the unjust regime into an Exemplary Republic. And at several international meetings in quick succession immediately following his inauguration, he seemed relatively at ease and capable. Two anecdotes are worth recording here, however, and involve his meeting with Angela Merkel, followed by one in the US with Obama. Each tells us about how things would develop. The meeting with Merkel was frosty, and relations with Germany have been deteriorating ever since; but for our our purposes, what is crucial is that Hollande was already using his presidential ‘self’ as the embodiment of France not giving in to austere and exacting Germany. His public ‘friendly tension’ with Merkel, as he called it, saw the personalised use of hostility to prevailing European policy, tinged with a slight virility issue – Hollande, the man imposing himself upon Merkel, the woman. This was a serious misuse of his office which by the end of the year had escalated into wild attacks by Hollande’s own party upon Germany as the cause of Europe’s ills, and upon the ‘selfish intransigence’ of Merkel herself. What a way to run a continent’s diplomacy (and in the end, Hollande signed the agreement he had said he would change, without a comma having been altered).

In the US, with Obama, there was no frostiness (even though Hollande had come to tell Obama he was withdrawing all French troops from Afghanistan). What did strike observers though was related to image. Next to the gazelle-like nonchalant elegance of his smiling American counterpart, in his open-necked shirt, Hollande seemed like an uncomfortable insurance salesman. ‘Normal’ next to ‘presidential’ was never more stark. The Americans had elected Obama, the French had elected Hollande.

Back in France, the sense of growing crisis was palpable. Peugeot-Citroën inconveniently announced 8,000 redundancies; unemployment was, in fact, going through the roof. Hollande’s first response as the new captain of the ship now heading directly into the hurricane was… to go on holiday. National disbelief was now palpable too, and the incredulity has not stopped growing since. If Hollande had stayed in Paris working with a small team around him, while others – and the French themselves – took their holiday (with an ‘I’ll come down for a long weekend’ to his partner, Valérie Trierweiler), Hollande’s presidency would have been fundamentally different. Indeed, the symbolism of staying behind at the office to sort out France’s crisis problems would have made a profound statement about Hollande’s desire to find new solutions for France’s old problems.

The reasoning was that he wanted to demarcate himself from his hyperactive predecessor, so he made no move at all – twiddling his thumbs – or, rather, swimming, and strolling around in his chinos in Brégançon – while Paris and unemployment burned. Had he not learned that being photographed on holiday was a no-no for an incumbent in a crisis?

The obsession with being and doing everything that Sarkozy was not made Hollande oblivious to the actual situation the country was in. This mistake of defining himself in relation to his predecessor rather than to an ‘imagined’ and imaginable ‘Francois Hollande, President of the Republic’ stems from a more fundamental mistake or failing, namely, an incomprehension of the subtle norms and exigencies of the office he holds; in a word, he and all the people around him do not understand the republic they are in charge of. This situation explains every single dreadful mistake Hollande has made. The result is that he is the architect of his own misfortunes. It is as if Lord Raglan at Balaclava helped the Russians position their artillery – even supplying them with some if his own, and telling Prince Obelensky exactly when they would charge – before sending the Light Brigade down the valley to be cut to pieces. By September, when they had all come back from their hols, Hollande’s popularity was already below 50%, and that was just the beginning. It has been in free-fall ever since.

Francois Hollande and Valérie Trierweiler on holiday in Brégançon

He had fought the election campaign claiming he would be a normal and simple President, like a prime minister, in fact, which is not what the French presidency is (although it is, in all but name, that too). The presidency is a major site of ambivalences, and is in a complex relationship to the French and their problems, anxieties, desires and reflections. There is a psychic dimension to the French presidency and its relationship to the French. And there is an element of narcissism, in its clinical sense, in the French and their desire for a President (when everyone else gets on with having a P.M. or a Chancellor for the political stuff) as both their political leader and their Head of State. The President embodies metaphorically, indeed almost literally, the French state itself. Stray from that or ignore it and you are in trouble. It is not just that unemployment was going up. It was, and still is. But it is also about what the relationship of the President is to the country in times like this. It is not just his policy intentions that matter, but his emotional relationship to the people his policy affects. And Hollande seemed to have none of either. It is not just about displaying competence but about gaining public confidence. Simple and normal. Two more Tsarist cannons to blast into the brigade when the trot became a gallop. But these were nothing to the battery of cannons to the right and the left of them he then supplied his enemies with, and set up on the sides of the valley for them so they could blast holes in his new presidency.

The emotional subtlety of the office means that a strongly ethical dimension to the persona of the President is inevitable. This can hook on to, as it were, issues such as a devotion to France, or republican integrity, or modernisation, or confronting injustice or righting wrongs. And the persona of the pretender to the throne is used to mediate ideas and their ethical dimension. However, to state this overtly is a fundamental mistake with enormous ramifications. Hollande’s constant stress upon his greater moral status than Nicolas Sarkozy and upon the idea that he would bring integrity through his own comportment and that of the people around him was to expose him to constant scrutiny – and lampoon – almost from the moment he took office. The searchlights would seek out not just the simple and normal persona and its variants, but every ethical implication of every action. It also meant that every move he made – or did not make – would be as if driven by ‘justice’ rather than efficiency, by the righteousness of the new Good King, rather than because it actually worked.

‘Normal’ and ‘simple’ were bound to descend very quickly into farce: Hollande’s claims to virtue would, if undermined, turn farce into tragedy. Every personal characteristic, trait and failing, especially anything to do with personal morality and ethical comportment – anything that suggested he was ‘just like the others’, or hypocritical – would be exposed to scrutiny. Every move he made would be subject to moral appraisal. He had said there would be no more corruption, no more bling, no more scandals, no more headlines in the Hello Magazine press. Well there has been a year of nothing else. Three stand out.

The first has been the bizarre and headline-attracting comportment of his partner, Valérie Trierweiler. She soon put paid to the no more headlines issue. First, her barely concealed feud with Hollande’s former partner and presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, became a national talking point in June 2012 when she tweeted – i.e. told the whole of France – her support for Royal’s rival in the legislative elections (and Royal lost…). Also, as a journalist (for Paris Match), she said she did not want to be a potiche (a trophy) First Lady. But then she kind of did. Her uncertainty betrayed a self-centred caprice, in an ingenuous relationship with both the office and the media. She also, indeed, appeared to have a temper. By 2008, President Sarkozy’s public/private drama with his ex-wife Cécilia and new wife Carla had seen his popularity drop to 36%. Hollande in his campaign was going to put a stop to all this ‘peopolisation’ of political life; and yet within weeks of his taking the presidency, Valérie was making Carla look like Jackie Kennedy. Very soon polls saw Trierweiler, the ‘First Girlfriend’, disowned by the French with a 67% disapproval rate. Hollande was caught on camera being told by a very ordinary local woman not to marry her, and that the French did not like her. There was an equally hostile feeling against her assuming such a central role, given that she and Hollande were not married (and if she didn’t want to be a ‘normal’ First Lady, why did she have five staff working for her at the Elysée? A PR consultant might have been a better idea).

The second ‘moral’ hostage to fortune was the myriad of little lifestyle changes Hollande and his entourage undertook to (ostentatiously) remove ostentation from the presidential function: he would take trains instead of taking jets. In reality, his taking trains – usually accompanied by Valérie – became media events (and the couple never seemed to have any luggage); and he might take the train there and the jet back (which had to fly there to get him), or else take the official limousine back, which was clocked at 110 miles-an-hour on the A1 motorway. Hollande told his ministers off for taking private jets to get about, and then used them himself. He would live simply, except that Valérie spent a fortune (paid for by the state?) on cushions and such and their transportation to their summer holiday residence in 2012. It no longer mattered whether half these things were true; the damage was done because of the earlier claims to moral rectitude. Any advisor should have told him, if you want want to win you can use the moral card; if you then want to effectively govern or preside, you had better not.

The fall in Hollande’s popularity was vertiginous. In early 2013, a successful military operation in Mali and the freeing of a family held hostage in Nigeria barely made a blip on his popularity ratings. By this time, a qualitative decline in not just Hollande’s popularity but his credibility had taken place. He had said he would, throughout his mandate, stay in touch with the people through provincial tours and visits, for example to his adopted Corrèze. Hostility or even worse, indifference, met him everywhere. By Spring 2013, the provincial visits had become yet another PR disaster. And when you thought it could not get any worse, the third scandal, the Cahuzac affair, was of nuclear proportions.

The Jerome Cahuzac affair was the catalyst for an avalanche of crises engulfing the government in the early months of 2013. It started off as a relatively ‘discrete’ issue, involving only one man, albeit a Government Minister: did Jerome Cahuzac, the Budget Minister, have a secret overseas bank account? And if he did, he would have to resign (he said he didn’t have one). But the shockwaves from his resignation on March 19th (yes he did have a secret Swiss bank account, and admitted as much) seemed never-ending to the point where not just the government but the regime itself appeared in danger of going into a tailspin. What is astonishing is that this was not foreseen – not the Swiss bank account, which many insiders were clearly aware of – but the fallout. The reason why the fallout was not foreseen is the same reason why Hollande and his team got into such a mess: they did not understand the nature of the Republic they so extolled, nor the symbolism of leadership in it. The Cahuzac affair was a personal tragedy for Cahuzac and a sad comment about politics (he was a tax fiddler whose job it was to – with due righteous indignation – chase tax fiddlers). But, politically, it is Hollande who was the real victim; even the stability of the regime itself has been called into question. It was not Hollande’s own integrity which was being pilloried at this point but his incompetence. If he knew the truth about his Budget Minister he looked bad; if he didn’t know, he looked equally bad; as if he was the last to work out what was going on. The press compared the hapless Hollande to Mitterrand, the master Machiavellian: none of his ministers would have dared lie to him. Hollande’s earlier campaign association with Mitterrand, to the point of quite literally impersonating him – e.g. in his Le Bourget speech – now made him look pathetic.

In the same Spring of 2013, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, having taken up her pop career again, released an album containing a song that depicted Hollande – allusively – as a rude and silly penguin (who would get his comeuppance). He had in all his moral rectitude acted with dismissiveness towards the outgoing presidential couple on his inauguration day. Now, President Hollande had, in turn, become a figure of utter derision. As Dylan once sang: be nice to people as you go up, you might meet them coming down.

Hollande reacted falteringly to the Cahuzac scandal, promising major changes (most of the measures actually existed) including making all government ministers declare their fortunes and tax arrangements. The ones with little fortune declared immediately (although in some cases declaring the value of their homes when they bought them rather than their current value immediately gave the whole thing an air of suspicion). No one seemed to have a car (all used ministerial cars). No one invested in the dynamic economy. Property (or properties) was the main source of wealth. And there were eight millionaires in the government! The combination of voyeurism and the perception of large fortunes made the situation even more farcical, and the President did not declare his own fortune… One of the little-remarked upon features of this affair was that Hollande made the situation worse by his own self-dramatization. He had by this time lost all reputation through his inaction; now, by being so solemn and self-righteous in his pronouncements, upon something he should have ensured did not happen in the first place and for which he had been elected to make not happen, made him look like a ham actor rather than a President.

The right-opposition UMP party called for a complete government overhaul, which Hollande probably needed to do, but only when he had some control over the situation (which he did not). The far-right National Front called for new elections – which, of course, would have blown away all President Hollande’s authority. The Left Front, which could attract a lot of Hollande’s former supporters – even his MPs – called for a new Constitution, as did some in the Green Party, which was in coalition with the government. He would probably lose the elections badly, and be made to stand in the corner for the rest of his presidency. Everyone called for a new political direction, although no one quite new which. Meanwhile, the growing sense of drama grew by the hour. And the party was in chaos. In a poll in early May, it appeared that if a presidential election were to take place, Hollande would not even make it through to the second round. 7 out of 10 of those polled in April already thought Hollande as President was a disaster. By the end of the month, 8 out of 10 were in favour of a new government of national unity. The public were clearly very angry, and what was worse, utterly disillusioned with politics. When a population – particularly one in the middle of a crisis like France is going through, with unemployment over 10% and hundreds of firms closing every week – believes that all politicians are corrupt (pourris), this helps the extremes, in particular the extreme-right who stand to gain from this growing sense of economic, political, and now moral crisis. That’s all we need.

The fragility and complexity of French politics has been exposed by this scandal. Much of the stability is based upon the intricate and interactive relationship between the French and their President. François Hollande seemed after year one to have completely lost the French along the line (and they weren’t expecting that much in the first place, but they certainly weren’t expecting what they got). The republic is not more simple, normal or moral than it was before. In mid-May a staggering 75% of those polled actually said nothing had improved from a year ago. Part of the disillusion stems from three issues – two things he didn’t do, and one he did: he didn’t make it clear how difficult the economic and social trials were going to be; he didn’t make it clear how deep the cuts in spending would be; but what he did do was he told the French that ethically, his rule was going to be a new dawn. It isn’t. In fact, it is turning into a bit of a nightmare. The negative impact of these three issues makes him now appear dishonest as well as aimless. In all polls, the French overwhelmingly do not know where the government is going, or where the President even wants to go; but what is worse, no one believes a word he says anymore. Last autumn he gave a TV interview to France 2, later a press conference. He made a robust New Year’s message at the end of 2012, watched by millions. 75% of viewers didn’t believe a word of it. It was the same for his long TV interview of March 2013 on France 2, then his interview to AFP at the end of April. One has the impression that even if people are listening, they do so with a profound scepticism and in the vain hope that they might just catch something positive.

The most important issue facing the President as he begins the second year of his presidency (‘Putain, quatre ans!’ is on everybody’s lips), is that of his credibility. Does he have any cards left? Well, yes. In politics there is always a way back if the configuration of circumstances changes. In the recent period, listening to both his prime minister and finance minister, Ayrault and Moscovici, one hears a now constant stress upon the idea that the President has fixed a course and knows where he is headed, as if vision and unpopularity were correlated. This actually is a deep tradition in French politics. So there is that. Then there are the practical things like a government reshuffle, and its effects (it will have few, in fact). Then there is the ‘performance’ of the President – his press conferences and interviews are moments where he could impress opinion – he has not yet, but these performances are always moments of opportunity. Then there is the wider economic situation; in spite of the Eurozone’s difficulties, there is cause now for some optimism. This is what Hollande is banking on, a Europe-wide economic revival that will carry France with it (not so sure). But most of all, the President, like all the political actors, needs somehow to find a sensitivity to the complexity of the culture and institutions they operate within. No President of the Fifth Republic has become so unpopular, so fast. No other has shown how complex is the architecture of French political leadership.

About the Author:

John Gaffney is an expert on political leadership. He is Professor of Politics and Co-Director of the Aston Centre for Europe. His latest book Political Leadership in France is published by Palgrave Publishers. He is currently writing a book on the Hollande presidency.