Part 1 of a two-part piece reflecting the presidency of François Hollande following his recent departure from the Elysée. Today, an analysis of Hollande’s cataclysimic failure to convince the French public of his presidential credentials during his 5 year presidential term.
François Gérard Georges Nicolas Hollande, seventh President of the Fifth Republic, burst into office in a flurry of hope and optimism following his victory with approval ratings of around 60% – making him one of the most popular leaders in the EU. So how did his quiquennat deteriorate so quickly and spectacularly, leaving him the most unpopular French president since the 5th Republic’s establishment? So poor were his public approval ratings that he was forced to choose not to seek a second term in office – a first in French politics.
The crux of the issue for Hollande was that he failed to grasp the nature of the French Presidency and the ‘character’ it requires. As with many aspects of French politics, the source of the idealised French President derives from Charles de Gaulle. The dramatic nature of de Gaulle’s coming to power in 1958 conferred upon the presidency specifc characteristics as he inserted the ‘self’ and ‘personality’ into French politics. De Gaulle centered this presiendential character around two main relationships which have become engrained in French political culture: between the President and ‘the French’, and between the President and ‘France’. The former involves an imagined direct relationship with the people. An intrinsic characteristic of this is its presumed initmacy; the President supposedly understands the deep desires and aspirationations of the French people, cares about them, and serves on their behalf to effect change in a way only the President has the power to do. This is encapsualted by de Gaulle’s triumphs in multiple referenda in which he would ask the French to vote with him rather than for something in particular – the President can here tell the people what they believe due the nature of the relationship where de Gaulle presents himself as knowing exactly what the French want. In a sense, this manipulation of what is perceived common thought allowed the relationship to strengthen with an illusion of giving the people a greater voice whilst carrying out his own agenda. This relationship is therefore crucial to the success of any President and goes some way to explaining Hollande’s failure – he never really engaged in this performative relationship. It was worsened when Hollande attempted to reignite the relationship as his ratings began to fall. These provincal visits ‘à la rencontre des Francais’ appeared as a manufactured attempt to construct this relationship. The President’s relationship to ‘France’ is again an imagined relationship that was embodied by de Gaulle. The French President has a particular vision of France, and the role the election is therfore to authorise the exercise or fulfillment of that vision. De Gaulle, leaning on France’s bipolar vulnerable yet triumphant hitory, incorperated a vision of a ‘certaine idée de la France’ conveying greatness and grandure which was instilled into his rhetoric. Again Hollande was slow to realise the importance of this relationship as he desperately tried to increase reference to France and to himself, especially in foreign policy. However, contrasting with his original intention, the consequence of these attempts was a dramatic increase emphasis upon the omnipotence of the French Presidency and his ability to take almost any decision unilaterally, seen with the Syria situation in 2013. The mismanagement of these two realtionships, each fundamental to the presidential persona, created enormous difficulties for, and stresses upon, the presidency.
Linked to these two relationships is the idea of the President as a man of action, which in Gaullist terms evokes the idea of a hero figure re-establishing the authority of the state through positive embodiment of French optimism. The change in 2002 to 5 year terms or quinquennats only served to intensify this role of the President as action nust be taken quickly. This coincided with the further personalisation of politics with modern celebrity politcal life, thrusting political figures into the limelight and encouraging the idea of constant activity and presence. One of Hollande’s gravest errors is the misinterpreation of this aspect which he considered to be more a deviation during the Sarkozy era rather than the desired presidential norm. The self-coined image as the ‘normal one’, although admittedly helping him defeat Sarkozy, would ultimately come to present Hollande as a man of inaction. For
instance, frustation grew at this persona with the launching of the ‘Pacte de responsabilité’ in January 2014, by Spetember still no significant legislation had been passed, and by December 2014 Macron declared on national radio that it was a failure. To make matters worse, the attempted insertion of normality into the presidential character contrasted with the emotional registed observed in his campaign speeches, for instance the famous Bourget speech. This conflicting persona through the absence and presence of emotion in his rhetoric therfore gave him a certain ambivalence which, retrospectively, lent an air of artificiality to the persona. Hollande also succeeded on alienating much of the left populism which was given no further voice after the elections as many of his radical left-wing policies never came to fruition.
This ‘normal one’ self-characterisaton also damaged his ability to be presidential as he lacked a certain ‘saga’, an aspect once more inserted by de Gaulle. ‘Saga’ evokes the idea of long and personalised journeys to power with great rises and even precipitous falls. The absence of any dramatic trajectory meant that there was no ‘story ‘ from which Hollande could redress his image in order to curbe his unpopularity. This therfore left his vulnerable and exposed to all attacks upon him and every mistake he committed was savagely pounced upon, obliterating his presidential stature. Thus, a series of mistakes saw Hollande’s popularity fall 13%. These include: going on holiday almost immediately after election (the urgent need for change suggested in his motto ‘Le changement, c’est maintenant!’ apparently not so pressing), mismanaging his image ( repeatedly drenched and windswept in highly mediatised events, his ascew ties, his cheap shoes, and significantly the unconventional official photo shows him to be standing rather unnaturally – instantly punished on social media with parodies made with the Playmobil man). Although the latter misjudgement of his image may appear trivial in modern politics, it must recognised as almost instantly showing Hollande as a joke at a moment in which he should impose his authority. Yet who could blame Hollande for seeking this normality? There was evidently a place for this character after five frantic and exhausting years of the hyper Sarkozy presidency – in fact, this persona may even have found more long-term approval had it not been for the revenge of former partner Valerie Trierweiler in her memoir ‘Merci Pour Ce Moment’. The book challenged the received views on his ‘nicer’ traits, the attack being particularly effective due to her use of the rhetorical device of assumption-revelation. Trierweiler used her book to destroy Hollande, whom she accused of despising the poor and of being a heartless, but indecisive, person. She wrote it after he ended their relationship a year ago, following the Closergate scandal revealing that he had a mistress, the actor Julie Gayet. With public sympathy leaning towards Trierweiler, Hollande’s last redeeming qualities were left in ruins. His use of normality to win the election shows how the 2012 result was more a rejection of Sarko and shows Hollande to be the ‘accidental President’ – giving him no saga and nothing to later rebuild his identity from. De Gaulle was in essence open of his errors and shortcomings, highlighting specific occasions suggestive of uncharacteristic ‘blips’ in an otherwise assured presidency. The consequence of this was then often a rallying of support around this leader to help him, most notably to diffuse the precarious situation of May ’68. However, Hollande’s normality and statemenship meant that his mistakes were not highlighted as occasional moments of weakness but appeared almost constant or daily, ultimately bringing his trait of normal into ann image of mediocrity. Thu, Hollande’s ordinariness was incompatible with more Gaullist expectations and protocols that limits performance.
So Hollande could never realistically become a successful French President given the confines of French politics that struggles to shift from the conventions of Gaullist rule. Hollande failed to comprehend the ‘true’ nature of the role and the persona required to be popular. In a poll for Le Point just prior to the 2012 election, only 16% considered him to be of Presidential stature – encapsulating the problem for Hollande – he never truely was a President of the Fifth Republic. And for that I will always refer to him as The Unfortunate President.
[Part 2 will look beyond his poor approval ratings and evaluate the actual work carried out over the last 5 years]