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How France’s Presidential Election Pits Mr. Normal Against President Bling Bling

The statement of principles of France’s Parti socialiste (PS) tells us that “To be a socialist is not to be satisfied with the world as it is; it is the will to change society.” It is a mission statement signaling a desire to transform the basic conditions of the country, and as profound economic worries roil Europe, the party seems perfectly positioned to leverage that message in the run-up to next year’s presidential election in France. And yet, when asked to describe what kind of president he would be, François Hollande, the party’s nominee in this spring’s presidential election, has preferred to use the word “normal.”

Inextricable from the word normal, of course, is abnormal. When Hollande identified with normalcy (and “calm”), one purpose was to contrast himself to the current occupant of the presidential palace at Elysee. Polls indicate that Nicholas Sarkozy is the most disliked president in the Fifth Republic’s history. He is dismissed as “hyper” and, more damaging, has appeared too enamored of power’s trappings.

For its part, the PS has momentum, with a long string of successes in regional, municipal and local elections, capped in September by the first pro-Socialist majority in the Senate. The Socialists are hungry for the presidency, which they haven’t won since François Mitterrand’s reelection in 1988. A French weekly’s cover read recently, “The Smell of a Reign’s End.”

But though Hollande will be the standard-bearer for a party with an idealistic self-image, vying for an office that has a tremendous amount of power at its disposal, one of his main goals seems to be to conserve the social protections of the existing “French Model.” And for most French citizens, that may very well be enough.

FRANCE’S CURRENT WOES are undeniable. Its projected annual growth is 1 percent of GDP, unemployment is at an eleven year high, the budget deficit is large, and its banks heavily exposed to staggering Greece and shaky Italy.

But Sarkozy’s governing style has only made matters worse. He ran in 2007 as a “modernizer”, declaring that everyone should work harder to earn more. Sarkozy still speaks of the virtues of hard work, but those appeals are ever more incongruous with the persistence of mass unemployment. His political instincts have also failed him repeatedly: Certainly when a country heads into tough economic times, its government demanding social cutbacks, the head of state should not covet Rolexes and chase after celebrities. It is somewhat startling to look back at his transition to president from tough interior minister for the Gaullist party (now called the UMP, the Union for a Popular Movement). He had once seemed disciplined and astute, but he is now widely dismissed as agitated and superficial.

The French people increasingly have nostalgia for the sober presidential style of the Socialist president Mitterrand. Winning the Elysée in 1981, he is remembered as a deft Machiavellian, able to exercise power without losing control. One need only contrast his nickname “Tonton,” an affectionate moniker for “Uncle”, with the “Bling-Bling” label affixed to Sarkozy. His fourteen years as president—the term was then seven years but has since been changed to five—were healthy for French democracy, not least because it showed that national power was not the sole preserve of the right. The Socialists both defeated the mainstream right and secured their own dominance of the left, eclipsing their partner, the once powerful Communists.

Of course, people are also forgetting some of the ideological turmoil of that earlier era. When Mitterrand entered office in 1981 he initiated a dramatic left turn in economic policy. He then took a fast volte-face when it became evident that France could not move radically in one direction while the rest of the Western world went in another. Mitterrand achieved much, particularly in foreign affairs, but it is difficult to see that France was more “socialist” after his tenure.

This explains Hollande’s insistence on identifying himself not only with the trappings of dignified normalcy, but also political centrism. On the one hand, Hollande has been eager to demonstrate his common touch and personal discipline: The press has recounted how he rides to work on a motor scooter and has worked to lose weight for his campaign. He has also been a deputy representing Corrèze in “la France profonde” (“deep France”), which contrasts to Sarkozy’s affluent base in Neuilly, near Paris. (These distinctions are, however, slightly misleading. Sarkozy is something of a self-made politician while Hollande went to the elite National School of Administration.)

But Hollande has also intentionally kept his positions somewhat vague in order to draw votes. Hollande and the PS have all embraced reduction of the public budget deficit. Hollande calls for a fairer taxation system, eliminating various exemptions more beneficial to the well-off, along with lowering taxes on corporations that reinvest profits while raising them for those that don’t.

Of course, that doesn’t capture the entire picture of what’s happening among the Socialists. The PS’s late 20th century national victories depended on alliances with parties further left; Hollande still needs them all while he must appeal to non-socialist centrists between his own party and the political right. That explains why he speaks of hiring 300,000 public sector workers and instituting a tax on financial transactions in Europe to raise revenue (akin to the proposal by American Nobel laureate James Tobin).

When Hollande presents himself as “normal,” he is also contrasting himself to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former IMF director who was the frontrunner for the Socialist nomination until he was arrested on rape charges in New York earlier this year. He also distinguishes himself from the head of the PS, Martine Aubry,who is identified with the left wing of the party and has a reputation for dogmatism. Hollande defeated her decisively in the PS’s October primary, partly with the claim that a socialist “centrist” was most likely to unseat Sarkozy.

Sarkozy would surely have preferred to run against Aubry, but he will not be cowed by Hollande. Indeed, he isn’t a man to yield office, however difficult prospects for a second term. And he can still win—though, as Parisian political scientist Gil Delannoi observes, he is likely to need a series of helpful political events, “a brilliant campaign” and a very bad one by Hollande.

Some suggest that the UMP rank and file would actually prefer a PS win. It would clear the right’s deck and allow a new generation to step forth for 2017. It would also leave a socialist victor in an unenviable economic constellation. Even with amelioration of the Eurozone’s crises, the next French president will face very bumpy years. Americans might recall The Onion’s sardonic headline on Barack Obama’s election: “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.”  

But the only fate worse for the Socialists than winning the presidency would be losing it. The upcoming contests represent the last chance for the younger cohort of the Mitterrand years. Hollande’s fate will either be to be France’s next president, or to trigger an unpredictable reconfiguration on the left.

Indeed, a new politics from the next PS generation, a decade younger, was also competing in the October primary race. Arnaud de Montebourg, advocate of “deglobalization” and left-wing protectionism, and a key designer of the “open primary” that Hollande won, took a surprising third place in the first round behind Hollande and Aubry with 17 percent. Hollande, in other words, may be the party’s only realistic claim on political normalcy for the foreseeable, and probably difficult, future.

Mitchell Cohen teaches political science at Baruch College of the City University of New York and is former co-editor of Dissent.