From awkward to icy: Eight French presidential handovers
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French President François Hollande will hand over power Sunday to President-elect Emmanuel Macron in a solemn ceremony full of tradition. FRANCE 24 takes a look back at notable incidents in the transfers of power over the past 60 years.
The handover of power between Hollande and Macron will be the eighth since the beginning of the Fifth Republic, France’s current republican system of government, which was established by Charles De Gaulle in 1958. The highly symbolic ceremony represents the hallmark of a successful democracy: peaceful transition between leaders. That said, some of these ceremonies have been more fraught than others.
2017: A fresh face for the Elysée
Sources close to departing President Hollande said that he is aiming for a "simple, clear and amicable" ceremony to mark the moment that he hands over power (and the keys to the Elysée Palace) to his former finance minister Macron – a man 23 years his junior, and the youngest person to be sworn-in as president under the Fifth Republic.
Macron stepps into the palace and the presidency at only 39 years old, soundly beating the “record” held by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who was elected French president at the tender age age of 48. While Macron has said he wants to be a “Jupiterian” sort of leader (a word and a sentiment he introduced into French political rhetoric to evoke strength, energy and drive), he will likely be quite serious as he takes power. He struck a similar tone during his victory party speech at the Louvre on May 7 – more sober than exultant.
Traditionally, the outgoing president welcomes his successor on a snazzy red carpet on the doorstep of the Elysée. Then, the two men will disappear behind closed doors so that Hollande can let Macron in on a few state secrets, including, of course, the infamous nuclear codes. After their meeting, the two men walk together through the loftily named Courtyard of Honour.
It’s not clear if Macron will announced his choice of prime minister tomorrow. There’s been fervid speculation about who he’ll pick, but so far there are no clear favourites.
2012: Hollande’s gaffe
The relative warmth of the handover of power from Hollande to Macron will contrast with the icy feeling at the Elysée Palace on May 15, 2012, when outgoing president Nicolas Sarkozy handed the metaphorical baton to Hollande. A bitter race between the two had left things awkward, to say the least.
While both men respected the protocol of the ceremony, Hollande was later roundly criticized by the right for his lack of tact. At the end of the ceremony, Hollande turned on his heels without seeing Sarko off. Usually, the new arrival at the Elysée waits as his predecessor gets into his car and leaves the courtyard of the Elysée. Later, Hollande said albeit a bit too late that he regretted his action.
A few months later, Sarkozy’s wife, Carla Bruni, released a strange little ditty called “The Penguin”, about someone with a total lack of social skills. There was widespread speculation that the penguin in the song was a barely masked reference to Hollande. In one line, Bruni sings: "Hey, Penguin, if one day our paths cross again, I’ll teach you to kiss my hand."
The 2012 handover was also notable because outgoing First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy met with Valérie Trierweiler, who was Hollande's girlfriend, not his wife.
Overall, however, even having Trierweiler by his side couldn’t save Hollande from a rough day. Rain drenched Paris, prompting many to predict a difficult five years for the new president. Even more ominous (or just unlucky): lightning struck Hollande's plane as he traveled to Berlin to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
2007: Sarkozy receives icy congrats from soon-to-be ex-wife
Five years earlier, the ambiance was more pleasant as Jacques Chirac handed power to Sarkozy on May 16, 2007. Chirac was 74, had just finished his second term and was ready to relax into retirement.
Sarkozy, all smiles, went so far as to accompany his predecessor to his car. Chirac then rolled down the window to shake Sarkozy’s hand before leaving the Elysée.
The political camaraderie, however, stood in icy contrast to the unenthusiastic glances that Sarkozy was getting from his wife, Cécilia, as she accompanied their son Louis and four other children from the couple’s previous marriages. The French press had a field day with Cécilia’s marked lack of enthusiasm. A few months later, the couple divorced.
1995: Goodbye to Mitterrand
François Mitterrand spent a remarkable 14 years as president of France the longest time that anyone has held that office.
On May 17, 1995, when Mitterand handed power over to Jacques Chirac, his former prime minister, he already knew that he was dying of cancer. The ceremony was full of goodwill. Chirac had a pensive expression as he watched the car carrying his predecessor drive away.
A few months later, Mitterand died.
1981: Glory and shame
On May 21, 1981, French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing welcomed into the Elysée the man who had beaten him in the election, François Mitterrand. It was a historic moment, as it was the first time that the left had taken power in the Fifth Republic.
The contrast of the two men’s experience was striking. On one hand, VGE (as Giscard d'Estaing was known) left the palace on foot, to great booing. At the same time, a giant, festive crowd accompanied Mitterrand as he went to place a rose on the tombs of Socialist leader Jean Jaurès, resistance fighter Jean Moulin and abolitionist Victor Schoelcher, in Paris’s Panthéon.
1974: VGE strolls into power
On May 27, 1974, Giscard d'Estaing shook the hand of the interim president, Alain Poher (Georges Pompidou had died a few weeks earlier) on the steps of the Elysée Palace. VGE, who at 48 was the youngest president yet, wanted to be seen as a modern leader: he decided, for example, to wear a simple suit instead of coattails as his predecessors had done.
He also strolled along the Champs-Elysées on foot instead of going in the traditional open limousine.
1969: Pompidou, Poher and the presidency
Strangely enough, Poher actually handed over power in 1969 as well. He was serving as interim president then, too. He had stepped in after De Gaulle resigned two months earlier, so it fell to him to transfer power to newly elected Georges Pompidou.
Perhaps the worst irony for poor Poher was that he had actually run against (and lost to) Pompidou. But in another historical twist, he’d step in again to lead the country after Pompidou died while serving as president (see above).
1959: Au revoir, Fourth Republic
“Au revoir, Monsieur Coty,” said General Charles De Gaulle famously on June 18, 1959 as he abandoned shamed former president René Coty in Paris’s Place de l'Etoile before heading alone to the Elysée Palace.
With these words, De Gaulle bid farewell to the Fourth Republic. Under Coty, the French Fourth Republic had collapsed as war broke out in France’s then-colony, Algeria.
In the midst of this crisis, De Gaulle returned from retirement with calls for a new constitutional system. He swept the election on a wave of popular support.
De Gaulle, who wore a uniform for the inauguration, wanted to create the biggest contrast he could with what he saw as Coty’s weak and failed government. He also started a tradition of firing canons at the Invalides monument the day that a new president takes over, and which, in theory, will welcome in Macron on Sunday.
This article was adapted from the original in French.