François Hollande appears to have been consigned to the political mortuary. The first Socialist French president since François Mitterrand has been more unpopular than any of his predecessors in office — his approval rating sank to 13 per cent towards the end of last year.
His style of government has been ridiculed. His private life has been the subject of mockery. He is compared to a hapless captain of a pedalo navy or a wobbly French pudding, a Flanby.
But don’t write off Flanby just yet. Thanks to the peculiarity of French presidential elections, he may well win a second term. In order to understand how, it helps to go back to the election of 2002, when the first ballot set up a run-off between the conservative incumbent, Jacques Chirac, and Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front. The Socialist candidate, prime minister Lionel Jospin, had been edged out. It was a seminal moment in French politics. The citizens of the Fifth Republic gritted their teeth and voted for an unloved president just to keep out the far right.
It is increasingly likely that, 15 years later, the same thing will happen in reverse: the incumbent, François Hollande, will win because his opponents are divided and the National Front — although its image has softened and its popularity increased under the leadership of Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine — is still distrusted by the majority.
For all the opprobrium, Hollande has several significant things going for him. The economy remains a huge problem and unemployment is still high, but he has finally pushed through some reform measures that, though timid, are a step in the right direction. He has struck a firm line against Islamic extremists in Africa and the Middle East. And Hollande has been portrayed domestically as the man who prevailed on Berlin to keep Greece in the euro. In truth, Germany took a more commanding position, but the perception goes down well in a country that shivers at the mention of austerity.
This record would not be enough to propel him to a second term on its own. His real hope lies, as Chirac’s did in 2002, in his opponents. Divisiveness in pursuit of personal ambition has distorted French politics since the revolution here. The nadir came in 2002, when the Socialist Jospin faced no fewer than nine rival candidates from the left. Had one or two stepped aside, he would have made it to the second round with a good chance of unseating Chirac.
Five years later, the Socialists were less than united behind their champion, Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s previous partner and mother of his four children. The hard-charging Nicolas Sarkozy won, promising root-and-branch reforms, but by 2012 France had had enough of ‘le petit Nicolas’. Pollsters in Paris advised me not to watch the popularity polls, but the unpopularity numbers for the erratic, domineering ‘President Bling’. If you looked beyond the bluster, Sarkozy was running an economic policy that pushed France deeper into the ditch of uncompetitiveness, high unemployment and social tension. The presidency was there for the Socialists to win and, after Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s imbroglio with a maid in Manhattan, the prize fell into the lap of a long-time backroom operative: Hollande.
Now Sarkozy is the comeback kid. He has formed a new party for himself, Les Républicains. The name’s American connotations have not gone down well with some in France, but the party has even bigger problems: it is sharply divided on personal lines.
Alain Juppé, who was prime minister under Jacques Chirac, is the most popular centre-right presidential candidate, credited with 32–34 per cent support in the polls, but at the new party’s inaugural congress in June he was booed by a section of the Sarkozy faithful. The Républicains are firmly in Sarkozy’s grip but, with 25–28 per cent backing from the electorate at large, he lags Juppé. Sarkozy’s former prime minister, François Fillon, credited with 18 per cent support, could further split the vote.
Hanging over them are polls giving the savvy National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, 29–31 per cent support, which makes it probable that she will repeat her father’s achievement of 2002. That makes the real fight about who will be beside her when the faces of the two top first round contenders come up on the tv screens on election night.
The knives are out on the right. Neither Juppé nor Fillon will make life easy for Sarkozy, while Le Pen can easily mock Sarko’s hard-line policies as ‘National Front Lite’ and urge voters to go for the real thing. But Sarkozy is a political attack-dog who never gives up, and the urbane Juppé has problems that have not shown up so far in the polls. There is his age (he will be 71 in 2017), his conviction in 2004 for abuse of public funds, and the memory of his premiership in the mid-1990s, which earned him widespread unpopularity and led to a major electoral defeat for the centre-right. For his part, Sarkozy is dogged by his disappointing presidency, his ‘bling’ image and charges, which he denies, that he proposed to hand a position in Monaco to a judge in exchange for information about an investigation into alleged illegal campaign funding.
Hollande can safely sit back and leave the right to devour itself in personal battles, abetted by the media. Despite grumbles from the left about his increasingly -market-minded economic policies, the Socialist party will probably remain united behind him. We can discard a poll this month reporting that 37 per cent of respondents think Strauss-Kahn would be a good presidential candidate. The prospect of the former IMF head coming back seems too much even for the French political world.
If Hollande can simply get to the second round, he knows that France will rally to him. In 2002, Chirac received 82 per cent of the vote in the run-off. So don’t write off Monsieur Flanby yet. As Juppé once said, in French politics ‘only physical death counts, otherwise, there is always the possibility of resurrection’.
Jonathan Fenby has just published The History of Modern France from the Revolution to the Present Day.