I’m not so sure. The former longtime First Secretary of the French Socialist Party (PS) and President of the General Council of Corrèze (part of the Limousin region) has had a highly successful political career spanning three decades. Even his defeats turn into victories.
A graduate of the grande école ENA (École National d’Administration, whose alumni are called énarques), he also worked as a campaign volunteer on François Mitterand’s unsuccessful 1974 presidential campaign. The influential globalist economist Jacques Attali noticed Hollande when the young énarque joined the PS in 1979. Attali was a special adviser to Mitterand at the time. Mitterand, the newly elected president, quickly put Hollande up as a candidate for the 1981 French parliamentary (législative) elections. Hollande stood as a candidate in Corrèze … against future RPR (conservative) president Jacques Chirac.
And here is the Hollande lesson in calmly failing upward to success:
Although Hollande lost the election in the first round, it seems Chirac has had a grudging fondness for Hollande ever since, and will probably vote for him in the first round on April 22. Post-election 1981, though, and Hollande stood by Mitterand and Corrèze. Mitterand appointed Hollande as a special adviser afterward. Then he went on to serve as a staffer for Max Gallo, who was the government’s spokesman.
In 1983, Hollande was elected a councillor for Ussel in Corrèze. In 1988, he was elected as MP for Corrèze. The following year he was elected Deputy Mayor of Tulle, also in Corrèze. (A number of French politicians serve as mayors and MPs. Although I’m no authority, these roles held in tandem often get them central government posts. Christian Estrosi is another example — conservative (UMP) Mayor of Nice, MP and former Minister for Industry in Nicolas Sarkozy’s administration.)
In 1993, when conservatives began to reverse the leftist gains of the Mitterand era, things went quiet for Hollande for a couple of years. He lost his re-election as MP for Corrèze. However, it wasn’t long before things started looking up again. In 1995, when Lionel Jospin became leader of the PS, Hollande became the party’s spokesman after urging PS members to mend their differences. In 1997, Hollande was once again re-elected as MP for Corrèze. That same year, Jospin became Prime Minister and Hollande went on to replace him as the PS’s First Secretary.
As the position of First Secretary was particularly influential during Jospin’s premiership, Hollande became known informally as the Vice Prime Minister. In 2001, he was elected Mayor of Tulle in Corrèze, a post he held for seven years. Hollande had been quietly and carefully consolidating his political position nationally, regionally and locally over the years.
Lionel Jospin’s surprise defeat in the first round of the 2002 presidential elections marked the beginning of a noticeable decline for Hollande’s fortunes at the national level, even though he was the top man in the PS. However, he still had Corrèze as a fallback position. Hollande is as synonymous with the region as Jacques Chirac — another énarque — is.
Many who are relatively new or occasional students of French politics will connect Hollande with a long period of PS defeats and unpopular positions. The post-2002 period is what they remember or know best. Hollande was criticised for advocating a ‘yes’ to the referendum for the European Constitution. In 2005, although still the PS’s First Secretary, his influence in the party began to decline. Then his partner Ségolène Royal lost the 2007 presidential election to Nicolas Sarkozy in the second round. He and ‘Ségo’ broke up afterward, after more than 30 years and four children together. In 2008, Jacques Delors’s daughter Martine Aubry, longtime Mayor of Lille, succeeded Hollande as First Secretary of the PS.
But, every cloud has a silver lining, and soon after Hollande stood down as First Secretary of France’s Socialist Party, he was elected President of the General Council of Corrèze, a position he has held for the past four years — and one which Jacques Chirac had from 1970 to 1979. Hollande also found a new partner around the same time — journalist Valérie Trierweiler.
Now to the present day. With Dominique Strauss-Kahn out of the way as a potential PS presidential candidate, Hollande won the PS and Radical Left Party primary with a little help from his friends, including Martine Aubry and — Ségolène Royal. Of course, it helped that he slimmed down, too. His rapid and fairly sustained weight loss beforehand signalled that he was about to plump for the primary. Marianne, the French newsweekly, credits this weight loss to the Dukan diet (March 31 – April 6, 2012 issue, p. 63), something he has in common with his Front de Gauche rival Jean-Luc Melenchon and the Front National’s Marine Le Pen.
Now leading in the national polls for the second round on May 6, it looks as if François Hollande could well be the next French president.
So, what goes on behind the scenes? How does Hollande manage these remarkable comebacks? A recent article in Marianne let us in on a few secrets. ‘Enquête en Corrèze: Le bilan du président Hollande‘ (March 31 – April 6, 2012, pp 15-17) was revelatory. Those who have worked with him in Corrèze have nicknamed him ‘Speedy’ (p. 16). He is known to be late for many regional events, yet he wants to be the one cutting ribbons and shaking hands.
That said, there’s a bit more behind the man. I’m not advocating the following, by the way, just telling you what motivates him. First, if Hollande has any sort of word connected with him, it is ‘normal’ (p. 15). Second, if there is anything he rejects, it is authoritarianism (p. 14). He would rather be known for his weaknesses than have someone accuse him of being heavy-handed. Third, he cultivates a ‘familiarity without the closeness’ (p. 14). Fourth, he brings people together to support his objectives, be they owners of football teams, CEOs of hotel chains or presidents of professional associations (p. 15). Fifth — and this is crucial to the success of the fourth point — someone who worked with him in the PS said, ‘He seems nice but he’s a manipulator’. If you’re not with him, you’re quietly out of the picture (p. 16). Sixth — he can bridge party boundaries, as Bernard Murat, a conservative ex-mayor of the Correze subprefecture Brive, recalled. They managed to find various areas of agreement over a meal in Paris (p. 16).
Taking the ‘manipulator’ comment into account, here’s more on Hollande’s downside, which is where the voter comes in. Sarkozy’s UMP accuses Hollande of turning Corrèze into ‘France’s Greece’ (p. 16). In 2008, the département was €300m in debt. In 2012, that figure rose to €363m. A courthouse in Corrèze’s capital, Tulle, closed, but Hollande has promised to reopen it if elected president (p. 17). Tulle has also seen a record number of visits to the local Resto du Coeur, a charity restaurant providing food to the needy (p. 17). Marianne — a left-leaning magazine — says ‘In short, Hollande hasn’t yet turned Corrèze into California’ (p. 17). Actually, he probably has when one considers California’s spiralling debt, but they meant that he’s hardly improved Corrèze’s fortunes.
And this is what French voters will want to bear in mind when they vote in the first round of presidential elections on Sunday, April 22.