The Election of Francois Hollande – Looking Forward and Back

May 12, 2012 6:56 pm

Nicholas Sarkozy was subdued as he spoke to his supporters, the most prominent emotion here was relief, and for good reason. He had lost responsibility for a country where unemployment is at its highest in twelve years and the vulnerable state of the euro has been a source of constant anxiety. The issues in the eurozone have already been examined in a huge amount of detail by a long list of much better qualified people than myself – David Miliband’s article in The Times is just one of many. Suffice to say that the economic situation has dominated the election campaign. As a consequence, Sarkozy has often tried to cast himself as, ‘a ship captain whose boat was in full storm,’ a victim of historical accident who was doing his best to lead in turbulent times. History certainly adds a twisted irony to his last rally in the Place de la Concorde. In another age it was the Place de la Revolution and, perhaps most famously, the place that Louis XVI was guillotined. The irony was not lost on his rival Francois Holland, ‘I’m not asking for anyone’s head to be cut off,’ he joked, ‘I’m just asking for another one to be chosen.’

By the slenderest of margins – 1.8% at the last count – Francois Hollande was chosen to take France in a new direction. He celebrated with a historical statement of his own at the Place de la Bastille, a site synonymous with France’s revolutionary past and a traditional rallying point of the left.

The temptation of course, in turbulent times, is to look back nostalgically rather than face the difficult questions that the future will force upon you. Sarkozy has this luxury now, and in the aftermath of his defeat he will perhaps dwell on his mistakes. One of which proved to be giving the French people what they wanted. When he delivered on one of his principle promises of the 2007 election – raising the retirement age in the public sector – 3 million people poured onto the streets. It was the biggest popular protest of his Presidency. They can be a fickle bunch; the French electorate.

Looking back even further he might consider those that he alienated. With such a small margin of defeat it might be argued that Sarkozy’s neglecting of the young and particularly the young black community has cost him dearly. Their alienation seems somewhat inevitable when you consider his reaction, to rioting in predominantly North-African suburbs of Paris in 2005. As interior minister he promised to clean them out, ‘with a power hose.’

Francois Hollande targeted these disenfranchised group, most memorably in a campaign video called ‘48 hours with Francois Hollande,’ set to Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Niggas in Paris, it makes for bizarre, if entertaining viewing. Highly stylised and slickly produced it shows Hollande campaigning in several towns and suburbs, in particular a town called Creil (pronounced Cray…) with much animated talk of how the election of Hollande can bring something different. The time for change, it says, is now.

This pursuit of votes, both door to door and through viral videos on the internet has led to Hollande’s campaign being compared to Barrack Obama’s. It is a model that the campaign directors admit they were pursuing; a vast army of volunteers chasing down voters who would normally abstain. This was after all an election that Hollande hoped to win by bringing back the apathetic or the disenfranchised, a strategy that would require face to face engagement.

These efforts have been focused in banlieues, usually, but not always poorer suburbs generally populated with ethnic minorities. The strategy has worked and in victory Hollande declared himself, ‘the President of the youth of France.’ Echoes of the Obama campaign sounded late into the night as Hollande’s supports talked animatedly about un sentiment d’espoir – a sense of hope.

A look across the Atlantic to the homeland of their revolutionary cousins in the United States might tell Hollande something of the difficulties of going into a Presidency with an electorate full of hope. Hollande has little to spend as it stands. Add to this membership of the euro and the wider European Union which will serve to limit his autonomy, in the short term at least, in many of the economic policies he has promised to pursue. The simple fact is that the easy part is over. Whilst Sarkozy looks back on his Presidency, Hollande must face up to the reality of his.

In France’s history he will find both cause for comfort and cause for concern. The election of Hollande has been widely compared to that of Francois Mitterand in 1981. The results of Mitterand’s high spending economic policy and the drastic cuts that Mitterand had to make in 1983 and beyond will no doubt have informed Mr. Hollande’s own policies. Either way, Mitterand was a popular President who served for 14 years, perhaps comforting for the newly elected socialist.

As the self-proclaimed, ‘President of the youth of France,’ Hollande might look back even further to May 1968 when student protests that began, curiously enough at Nicholas Sarkozy’s alma mater Paris X Nanterre, erupted into pitched battles on the streets of the capital and later brought about a general strike that ground the country to a halt. The situation then was of course somewhat different. These protests erupted when Marxism was an endemic ideal across much of Europe’s university system and, though the surrealist slogans of 1968 might still be graffitied all over their buildings, it is hard to imagine a similar reaction coming from the universities now.

But that does not make the events of May 1968 irrelevant. Many of the same fractures that lay behind those protests appear to be opening up again in French society – if indeed they ever went away. A pointed sense of growing class discrimination and excessive stratification between rich and poor is being thrown into sharp relief in these austere times; exacerbated by the emergence of a ‘lost generation’ of young French people, especially those who are perhaps first or second generation citizens. It is amongst these groups that a reaction would seem most likely; were it not for the pressure valve provided by these Presidential elections. But even if times have changed, the essential ingredients that went into May 1968 have been brought together again. The underlying issues in French society have forced themselves into the political mainstream and they have to be addressed. Hollande’s priority must be the economy, but he will act with half an eye on the disaffected groups who gave him that crucial 1.8 per cent.

If he lets them down, if nothing changes, or things get worse, if he fails to deliver on what have been big, perhaps unrealistic promises, then do not expect some quiet frustrations. This is a group that has been on the political margins until very recently and they have had their expectations raised by the election of Hollande. The tradition of violent political action in France’s recent and distant past is intrinsic to their culture. The Marseillaise calls the citizens to arms (in contrast to our own dreary anthem) and the events of May 1968 are still eulogized by the youth of France. L’été sera chaud as the students put it, and it wouldn’t take much heat to spark off a volatile mixture.

The election of Francois Hollande has been widely hailed as a change of direction in France. Hollande’s anti-austerity pro-growth manifesto might well be mimicked in Greece, and it seems that he is not alone in seeking a new approach in Europe as a whole. But whilst people everywhere want an end to the perpetual gloaming there is nothing more dangerous for a government than raising expectations but failing to meet them. French history, above all else, shows what can happen when a group of people, previously disenfranchised, have their hopes for the future raised and then unceremoniously deflated. Since Hollande chose to hold his victory rally on the site of the Bastille, we can assume that he is well aware of this. He has raised expectations across France and should be applauded for that, but in the circumstances, high expectations bring a very particular kind of pressure. It will be interesting to see how his presidency develops in the coming days and months.

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