The Anti-Sarkozy: How French Socialist Presidential Candidate François Hollande Would Lead

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Jean-Philippe Arles / Reuters

François Hollande, France's Socialist presidential candidate, delivers a speech during the Futurapolis forum in Toulouse, France, on Feb. 11, 2012

The Socialist front runner in France’s current presidential campaign promises big changes if he wins elections a bit over two months away. Yet not only does François Hollande remain rather vague about just how he’d do things differently than incumbent conservative Nicolas Sarkozy — or, indeed, what things he’d undo that the current President put into place — but he also seems keen to dispel any fears foreign observers may have that he’d pursue a wildly leftist agenda if he wins the presidency May 6. In fact, perhaps the most obvious change France and the world would see with Hollande in the Elysée, the Socialist candidate suggests, is in calm and careful reflection returning to the presidency after five years of kinetic, often divisive, and frequently inefficient activity by the reform-driven Sarkozy. Despite the stakes involved in the office he’s seeking, Hollande isn’t one for overselling or dramatizing his presidential bid.

“When I’m out around the country now, I see voters aren’t looking for big promises, but simply to be taken seriously and given the consideration they deserve,” Hollande told a small group of American and British journalists Monday as he discussed his plans to win the Elysée amid the biggest crisis France and Europe have faced in 60 years. “All candidates believe that by winning an election they can change the situation. But I am lucid. I know no leftist has ever come into power facing such a grave crisis, and if [I] win, the challenges will be formidable. But I believe I have the qualities that can allow France to prevail — stability, calm, reflection and moderation.”

While Hollande’s self-portrait is true to his natural personality and style, it also paints a conspicuously un-Sarkozy likeness. Hollande projects a unifying, jovial persona and leadership method that clashes with Sarkozy’s dominating, impetuous, controversial and at times grating demeanor. That contrast is one both men assume: Sarkozy makes no apologies for being the driven, combative, victory-obsessed alpha male and tends to regard equivocators as feckless wimps; Hollande thinks there’s a lot to be said for being consensual, flexible and a leader more liked and respected than feared.

With Sarkozy’s approval ratings near record lows of around 30%, and mock election polls showing Hollande winning the May 6 runoff round of voting by double digits, the Socialist challenger retains the front-runner position he’s occupied since he won his party’s primary in October. Of course, two months is an eternity in politics, especially with a campaign animal like Sarkozy still idling and expected to finally announce he’s entering the race Wednesday night during a nationally televised interview. Still, many analysts predict that distaste of the deeply unpopular Sarkozy runs so high — even on the right — that a percentage of ballots are likely to be cast for the most credible mainstream contender who just happens not to be the incumbent. And while Hollande is clearly not planning on coasting through on the anyone-but-Sarkozy vote alone, he acknowledges that it’s a factor in his bid. “The desire among French voters for a change of President appears great,” Hollande says in understatement — while warning Sarkozy’s side will likely seek to combat that rejection wave with what he calls “trash” campaigning.

What’s in store for the nation if it rejects Sarkozy in favor of Hollande? Hollande paints some broad lines. He says he’ll insist on renegotiating December’s agreement on a European Union treaty creating strict rules on state deficits and debt — a revision that in part motivated German Chancellor Angela Merkel to publicly endorse Sarkozy’s re-election over Hollande this month. That’s part of a wider (but equally unspecific) re-examination Hollande will seek of the E.U.’s entire response to the euro crisis — one that he says involved “a failure of European governance.”

Hollande says that was particularly true in the E.U.’s handling of Greece — the nation he says began as the primary culprit in the debt crisis, but is now the victim of excessive and inefficient austerity measures imposed by leaders like Sarkozy and Merkel who “wanted to treat Greece with ordinary measures [when] it was necessary to treat Greece with extraordinary measures.” Hollande says the upshot the E.U.’s all-stick-no-carrot remedy for Greece is that even if the looming deal with Athens to free up billions in new loans pans out — and despite private creditors reportedly being set to accept a 70% write-down of Greek debt they own — the growth-culling effects of additional austerity mean “without a rebound [in growth] … Greece won’t even be able to finance its reduced debt.”

Elsewhere, Hollande says he’d make good on promises to step up France’s withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of this year — though he vows he’d do so “in consultation with our allies.” Hollande similarly says he’d revisit Sarkozy’s decision to return France to NATO’s integrated command structure, though his reasoning was as hazy as the possible consequences of the move. Hollande says he doesn’t want to reverse the reintegration decision as such, but regrets Paris “didn’t get much in return” in restoring full French membership to NATO. For that reason, Hollande suggests that if Paris isn’t given some sort of added leadership or command authority within the alliance, he’d take steps to ensure the French “retain our independence and singularity” within NATO — though, again, it’s difficult to know exactly what that might mean.

He’ll have to be more precise soon. Were he elected President, one of Hollande’s first official summits would be a NATO meeting slated for May in Chicago. Hollande will be making a visit later this month to the U.K., where he’s planning to meet Labour leader Ed Miliband and hopes to huddle with British Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. But in another demonstration of his low-key temperament, Hollande says he’ll understand if Cameron decides meeting with Sarkozy’s main leftist rival is too touchy a rendezvous to risk. He also says he won’t take it badly if Sarkozy-endorsing Merkel, or any other sitting European leader, declines his requests for per-election chats.

“I’m not looking to force any doors open,” Hollande says, once again drawing a stark contrast with Sarkozy, whom some pundits have compared in the past to a bulldozer. “I’m knocking on doors, and we’ll see which ones open.”