François Hollande: The French president who was anything but 'normal'
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François Hollande's reign as president was marked by a secret love affair, deadly terror attacks and an economic policy U-turn that could still rip his own Socialist Party apart – so much for the 'normality' he promised French voters five years ago.
Hollande was crowned France’s first Socialist president in 17 years after beating conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in a run-off ballot on May 6, 2012. The new president campaigned on the twin promises of “change now” and a “normal” administration, meaning a clean break from the hyperactive and flashy style that, until then, had made Sarkozy the least popular French president in modern history.
Alexis Bachelay, a first-term lawmaker who won a seat in the lower-house National Assembly as part of the same political tide that swept Hollande into the Elysée Palace that year, recalls the “fervour and hope” he felt. “It was a moment of communion between François Hollande, party members and left-wing voters,” he said. “We were completely dedicated and immersed in the campaign. We felt galvanised.”
Despite the early enthusiasm around his victory, Hollande would quickly find his authority tested from unexpected corners and realise that he enjoyed little lenience among the public. “He won the election in 2012 more as a result of French voters’ dislike of Nicolas Sarkozy, and less because of his own appeal,” said Serge Raffy, the author of a best-selling biography of Hollande. “He therefore came to power with virtually no grace period.”
Two incidents would quickly compromise the “normal” presidency Hollande promised. Only weeks after the presidential triumph, then first lady Valérie Trierweiler unilaterally torpedoed the legislative election campaign of Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s former companion and the mother of his four children. Without Hollande’s knowledge, Trierweiler tweeted her support for Royal’s in-party rival, enraging the Socialist Party’s leadership. Then in March 2013, Jérôme Cahuzac, the man Hollande picked to fix the country’s finances, was forced to step down over the revelation he hid 600,000 euros in Switzerland to skip out on taxes.
The damage caused by the two incidents would seem trivial a few months later, when a French tabloid exposed Hollande’s love affair with French actress Julie Gayet. Any remaining sense of normalcy flew out the Elysée window as a stunned Trierweiler was hospitalised following a near overdose, reportedly smashed up property in the Elysée Palace, and post break-up with Hollande, penned a bitter tell-all in which she accused her ex of cracking jokes about “toothless” poor people.
Amid the soap opera of his private life, Hollande did claim a handful of early political victories as president. In January 2013, he ordered a widely hailed military campaign to reclaim control of Mali, half of which had fallen into the hands of Tuareg separatists and al Qaeda-linked militants. Another military intervention that year likely averted a Rwanda-style genocide in the Central African Republic. On the domestic front, he made good on his campaign promise to legalise gay marriage, resisting massive and well-orchestrated opposition from religious conservatives.
Yet voters were left pondering how a leader capable of thwarting jihadists and re-establishing order in the Sahara could fail so miserably at keeping his love life from becoming tabloid fodder. By February 2014, only weeks after the Gayet story broke, Hollande’s support slipped under 20 percent for the first time, lower than Sarkozy's ever had. “From the very start French people felt like Hollande lacked authority, and it’s a problem that would only worsen over the next five years,” Raffy said.
Hollande got a chance to win back hearts as he confronted an unprecedented series of terrorist attacks on French soil starting in January 2015. And while he initially seemed to flourish under the pressure, a strategic misstep eventually backfired brutally.
The president’s job approval rating had sunk to 13 percent at the start of that year, when two brothers armed with assault rifles stormed into the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Claiming revenge for a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed, they killed 12, including eight members of the magazine's staff. In related attacks, a third man killed a police woman and four clients in a kosher supermarket. In the days that followed, the French government organised a massive march for peace in Paris, rallying 1.5 million people, including 44 world leaders.
Terrorists struck the French capital again in November, this time targeting bars and restaurants, the Bataclan concert hall and the Stade de France. The huge sports arena on the outskirts of the city was hosting a football friendly between France and Germany, and Hollande was in attendance. The death toll surged to 130 people, with almost 400 injured, in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group.
In a televised speech that night, Hollande declared a state of emergency throughout France and ordered borders shut. He pledged to “defeat the terrorists”, but also called on citizens to “show compassion and solidarity… unity and calm”.
According to Bachelay, it was Hollande’s greatest moment. “After the Charlie Hebdo attack, but especially after the horrible attack against the Bataclan, there was a real risk of tensions and divisions among French people. But he managed to keep everyone together,” the lawmaker said. “At that moment François Hollande showed us what it was to be a great president. He became the custodian of national unity and democracy.” Indeed his job approval rating jumped to 35 percent by December 2015, also buoyed by the success of the Paris climate agreement.
In response to the jihadist threat, Hollande ordered the deployment of 10,000 troops across France, and military patrols consisting of three to four soldiers have become a fixture of the capital ever since. Hoping to garner even wider support and undermine the political opposition, Hollande moved to change the constitution in order to strip dual-citizens found guilty of terrorism of French nationality.
However, the bill sparked an outcry, with many fellow Socialists calling into question its legality or its effectiveness in preventing further attacks. Bachelay was among those who broke ranks with Hollande on the issue. “For me, [the bill] broke with the principle of equality,” he explained, “at the very least it discriminated against dual-citizens”. Sensing the bill would fail to garner enough votes, the president pulled it, but the damage had already been done. Several lawmakers announced they would distance themselves from Hollande in late January 2016, and then justice minister Christiane Taubira – a key ally since Hollande’s first days in office – resigned.
“He didn’t think the measure was that important, but it became a huge deal, one that completely divided his own party,” Raffy said. “He tried to exploit the issue to win national consensus, but it backfired. It achieved the exact opposite of what he had in mind.” Not only was Hollande’s approval rating moving downhill again, a crowd of increasingly vocal dissenters within the Socialist Party, the frondeurs, had hitched a different ride.
A house divided
Hollande once famously declared that his “only real enemy” as president would be “the world of finance” and promised to stand up against Berlin-imposed austerity. His economic policies were instead marked by a pro-business shift that dismayed unions, Green Party coalition partners, and the left-wing branch of his own party.
In late 2013, Hollande rolled out his so-called Responsibility Pact (Pacte de Responsabilité), extending around 40 billion euros in tax breaks to help French businesses be more competitive and hire more workers. The programme’s launch nevertheless coincided, and was largely overshadowed, by the turbulent Hollande-Gayet-Trierweiler love triangle.
According to Raffy, the Responsibility Pact – which also included tax breaks for France’s poorest households – was the president’s single biggest accomplishment. The timing of the economic reform was unlucky, but it finally gave French industry the oxygen it had spent two decades gasping for. The biographer believes it explains the economic recovery, however slight, that France has experienced at the twilight of Hollande’s tenure.
Staunch left-wingers disagreed. And when Hollande and then prime minister Manuel Valls unveiled a second pro-business reform in 2016 that allowed bosses to fire and hire workers more easily, massive and often violent street protests erupted. The Socialist government modified elements of the law – named after French Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri – in a bid to assuage angry unions, student groups and ordinary citizens, but to no avail. Facing a deficit of support even among its own lawmakers, the government forced through the bill through parliament without a debate or a vote.
For the second time in his short career as a Socialist MP, Bachelay defied his own party leadership over the contested El Khomri law, joining fellow lawmakers who vowed to vote against the measure and oppose the undemocratic manoeuvre that bypassed parliament. “I thought [the El Khomri law] would impose certain changes that went against Hollande’s promises, so that he didn’t have the democratic legitimacy to present it,” he insisted.
The standoff between PM Valls and the frondeurs over the labour reform intensified, with the mutinous Socialist lawmakers going as far as to orchestrate a no confidence vote against the premier. The parliamentary coup eventually failed, but Hollande’s party was left deeply fractured. Staging a no confidence vote against their own leader “was completely unprecedented” for a French party, Raffy pointed out.
Amid the fratricidal wrangle, terrorism returned, this time on France’s national holiday. In the seaside city of Nice, a man drove a truck through a crowd gathered to watch Bastille Day fireworks, killing 86 people and wounding around 434 others. Hollande announced the state of emergency would be extended by three months, recognising at the same time that an “eternal” state of emergency “would become meaningless”.
‘Never spoke to the people’
Nearing the midway point of his mandate, Hollande told an interviewer he would forego a re-election bid if his government failed to turn a corner on massive unemployment. The jobless rate stood just above 10 percent at the time. From that point on the suspense around his conditional candidacy grew, like a rising, collective itch the president refused to scratch.
Finally, in December 2016, he solemnly announced he would not run for a second term, another first for a modern French president. He would step aside not because of the jobs situation, which he argued was improving, but because his candidacy had created too many divisions within the political left. His job approval rating tanked to a historic low of 11 percent. Whatever the cause, the Hollande era now had an expiration date.
According to Raffy, Hollande’s record was not the cause of his collapse. Rather, it was a chronic failure to connect with ordinary people that condemned his presidency. “Very quickly, French people lost sight of their president. They could never figure out who the real Hollande was. His advisors implored him to change, to show some emotion, to get angry, to express some feeling, but he refused. He would tell them ‘I don’t want to wear a mask’,” the biographer explained.
Since 1958 and the start of the so-called “Fifth Republic” in France, voters have been able to pick their president in direct elections. Raffy believes over the past six decades French people have come to expect a sense of familiarity from their president. It was a closeness Hollande denied voters, time and time again.
“François Hollande never figured out how to speak to the people. He spoke to journalists, to bureaucrats, to lawmakers, and that’s it. He was never able to share a story with ordinary people, to explain things in a way everyone could understand,” Raffy added.
Hollande leaves behind a country fearful of the next terrorist attack, sceptical it can achieve meaningful economic growth anytime soon. It remains to be seen if his own party will survive the next election cycle, with some Socialist heavyweights refusing to endorse their camp’s presidential nominee Benoît Hamon. Pollsters meanwhile say there is a record number of undecided voters just weeks before the country picks Hollande’s successor. France is feeling uncertain about its future direction; it may be because it can’t figure out who was at the steering wheel for the past five years.