World ponders Hollande's role on international stage
Moments after his first encounter with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday, France’s new president, François Hollande, was already being sized up by the international press.
Foreign observers are beginning to carve out an image of French President François Hollande in the wake of his election victory, but have so far struggled to define a man who has had little visibility outside his own country.
After he secured the Socialist Party’s presidential nomination in October 2011, Hollande quickly reached for his passport, organising trips to Madrid, Rome, Berlin and London. His sudden travel fever – limited, however, to the safe borders of Europe – seemed to respond to the persistent criticism from the right: a lack of experience, especially on the international stage.
A career politician, Hollande joined the Socialist Party in 1979. He juggled local and regional political offices in central France throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s, until he became the leader of the party in 1997. He would hold the position for the next 11 years, without ever serving as a minister.
Hollande has unconvincingly claimed that his job as party chief allowed him to “travel around the world” to meet sister political parties. His campaign spokesmen and entourage have been forced to argue that other prominent leaders, such as UK Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama, also entered office with little diplomatic experience under their belts.
Hollande vs Sarkozy
Much of the commentary from abroad has focused on comparisons between Hollande and his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. “Hollande certainly comes across as more normal than the hyperactive Sarkozy, whose twitches, self-aggrandisement and temper tantrums made him a favourite of political sketchwriters across the globe,” wrote the UK’s Daily Mail.
According to Maya Mirchandani, an editor with NDTV in New Delhi, French politics rarely gets much airtime in India. Coverage of Hollande in her country has often been related to the differences – personal and professional – between him and Sarkozy. Many in India wanted to know who would be replacing Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, a former model, as France’s first lady, Mirchandani told FRANCE 24.
While the UK weekly The Economist was not ready to applaud Hollande’s victory, which the publication has said threatens the future of Franco-German relations, it portrayed Hollande as a more level-headed statesman. “His unpretentious calm may suit the chancellor [Angela Merkel] better than the erratic grandstanding of Mr Sarkozy,” The Economist wrote.
Hollande vs Merkel
Initial impressions of Hollande across the globe seemed to ride on his budding relationship with Chancellor Merkel, who notoriously sided with Sarkozy in the recent election. While some thought Hollande was capable of charming his German counterpart, others thought he would be sidelined by Merkel’s commanding presence on the continent.
Having previously warned that Hollande’s “deep anti-business attitude” was “bad for his country and Europe,” The Economist has recently struck a more conciliatory note. On May 12 the British weekly argued that Hollande could save Europe by convincing Merkel to back modest investment measures and the issuing of Eurobonds.
Other commentators thought Hollande stood no chance of outmanoeuvring Merkel, who has repeatedly dismissed suggestions – backed by Hollande – that the eurozone’s new fiscal treaty might be amended to make room for growth-boosting measures. “While Merkel continues to rule in Berlin, the hopes of Hollande and others will crash into a wall of cuts and deficit reduction,” wrote Miguel Angle Villena in the leading Spanish daily El Pais.
A political cartoon in the New York Times seemed to deliver a similar verdict. Portrayed as a bright-eyed newcomer eager to cooperate, Hollande is greeted at the door by Merkel, who addresses him as her new “pupil” and proceeds to give him some hard “Austerity” lessons.
Big shoes to fill
Other opinion leaders downplayed Hollande’s victory and raised questions about his ability to fill the big political shoes he has inherited. “The man about whom former president Jacques Chirac said long ago, ‘More people have heard of Mitterrand's Labrador than of François Hollande,’ now stands in a line with Louis XIV, Napoleon and General de Gaulle,” wrote the leading German daily Der Spiegel.
In the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Corinne Mellul said Hollande was uncharismatic and unrealistic. “His platform promises a tidal wave of social expenditure that only manna from heaven could fund,” Mellul wrote, adding that “In multiple ways, Sarkozy handed him a victory.”
Clovis Rossi, an editorialist for Brazil’s Folha de Sao Paulo, said inauguration day was a wake-up call to Hollande. “When he arrived at the Elysée Palace, the ‘normal’ Hollande was suddenly devoured by the grandeur of old France,” Rossi wrote.
In the coming days the international press will have ample opportunity to dissect Hollande. France’s new president will travel to the United States for G8 and NATO meetings over the weekend, and to Brussels on May 23 for a specially convened summit of EU leaders.