“My opponent is the world of finance.”
— Hollande, in the run-up to his election
The French are often looked upon as an enigmatic people — nobody, it seems, really knows what to make of them. The new French President appears to be no exception. What you see may not be what you get with Francois Hollande, which is probably why he has so many nicknames from friends and adversaries alike.
His perceived ability to lead from behind and build consensus means he is called Mr. Nice by those who have benefited from it and Mr. Compromise by those who haven’t. His round features have inspired the snobbier ones to dub him Monsieur Flanby, after a wobbly French pudding, while the kinder ones have thought of him as the Marshmallow Man. He was once ridiculed as Mr. Royal when his former partner Segolene Royal ran for the presidency and has been scoffed at as the ‘pizza delivery boy’ because he used to ride a three-wheel scooter to work. The former President, Nicholas Sarkozy, has sneered at his famed sense of humor by calling him ‘Mister Little Jokes.’
Hollande does not seem to mind. He calls himself Mr. Normal.
In fact, he appears to thoroughly enjoy making people eat their words and proving their instant judgements wrong. Be it losing 25 pounds and giving up cheese, wine, and chocolate (a feat for a true-blue Frenchman) to prove his fitness for the President’s office, or switching his tailor when his detractors sniggered at his ill-fitting suits, throughout his 30-year political career, Hollande has continually stunned people with his ability to change — and always accomplished with a smiling countenance. ‘I am not dangerous,’ he declared to a group of London financiers in February and promptly went on to be exactly that in a spirited television debate with Sarkozy.
Never without a joke to share with the world, the 57-year-old Hollande now needs all the cunning and humor he can muster to tackle the grim challenges he faces as President of a country that not only has to weather the Euro-zone crisis but also tackle weak growth and high unemployment. Though Sarkozy was perceived to be unpopular by the end of his presidency, political analysts believe it was Hollande’s promise of change and not just anti-incumbency that likely turned voter opinion in his favor. The left-wing Hollande has promised huge tax hikes for the rich, and has assured the French that he isn’t too keen to back Germany’s austerity diktats for the European Union. In the run-up to his election, The New York Times quoted him as saying he was not a great fan of American-style capitalism and that nations cannot be chained by bond markets. His declaration this January that his “opponent is the world of finance” actually prompted The Economist to feature a photograph of him with the caption ‘The rather dangerous Monsieur Hollande.’
Hollande though appears to be pretty much accustomed to being labeled, and such criticism hasn’t deterred him from declaring time and again that he will fulfil his promise of ‘recovery, unity and justice.’ He hopes to achieve this goal through a slew of measures — some of the more talked-about ones include reducing the retirement age from 62 to 60, hiring 60,000 more teachers, and imposing a whopping 75% tax on those earning more than a million euros a year. Political observers have long been speculating whether Hollande is as much of a socialist as he appears to be, but this ‘political tortoise’ (still another of his monikers) seems to have slowly and steadily chalked things out.
Hollande has perfected this skill of surprising the hares and working quietly behind the scenes right from the time he was a 19-year-old Socialist Party volunteer, back in 1974. His abilities must have caught the attention of senior leaders early as he quickly rose to become a special adviser to the then French president François Mitterrand, who many believe is Hollande’s hero. In 1982, on Mitterrand’s advise, Hollande went to Correze in the Limousin region of France to build his political base and was brave enough to challenge conservative party heavyweight and Mitterrand’s successor as president, Jacques Chirac, on his home ground.
I am Francois Hollande; I am a candidate, the one you compared to Francois Mitterrand’s Labrador.
— Hollande’s retort to Jacques Chirac in a public forum
As expected, the tortoise was ready for the long haul. It took Hollande seven years to get elected but he never looked back and never forgot to look sideways. While heading the Socialist Party between 1997 and 2008, (his most high-profile job before the presidency), he solidified his reputation as an unassuming man who could ‘synthesize’ and build consensus. And Hollande has been extraordinarily patient with inflated political egos while being unpretentious himself — an astonishing achievement that has prompted French political analyst Alain Duhamel to describe him as a man with ‘truly impressive intelligence.’ Duhamel went on to explain to Time Magazine that Hollande “is very obstinate, never changes or loses sight of objectives he sets, and will plan and wait for the opportunity to take his best shot. We’ve seen that demonstrated again with a presidential victory most people never saw coming.”
Though Hollande himself does not set much store in such personality analysis, it is quite the tradition in the French media to indulge in what the socialist leader dismisses as “psychobabble.” Much has been written on the connection between public figures’ actions and decisions to childhood influences, starting with Sarkozy’s absent father and his parents’ traumatic divorce. Hollande’s biographer Serge Raffy believes it was the new President’s authoritarian and extreme right-wing father who shaped Hollande’s consensual nature and dislike of arguments. Born in Normandy, Hollande was brought up as a Catholic, although he is believed to have resented the strict religious education he received.
When Hollande was 13, his father moved the family to Neuilly, a tony suburb of Paris and reportedly threw away all the contents of the teenager’s bedroom, including his precious dinky cars collection. His biographer believes Hollande’s bon mots (witticisms) are defence mechanisms against his father’s ire and even today, his shield against the world. In contrast, his mother was a more cheery personality who ran for the Socialist Party in the National Assembly elections in 2008, exactly a year before she died. Always interested in becoming a career politician, Hollande went on to study at the ‘factory of the elite,’ the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), France’s graduate school for civil servants.
While at the ENA, Hollande met Segolene Royal, a party activist who later ran for the Presidency herself in 2007. They were companions for almost 30 years and had four children, but they split soon after Royal lost the race. Hollande’s current partner, Valerie Trierwaller, is a political journalist, and a woman he refers to as the love of his life. But Hollande seemed to have always been clear in his mind about his first love. In fact, his mother had once told French television that as a child Hollande used to say he wanted to be president, but nobody believed him.
Perhaps this is understandable, given that Hollande has managed throughout his political career to perplex even those who claim to know him. Little wonder then that the international community is watching the French President with more than slight apprehension. How well he will keep up his promise of convincing German chancellor Angela Merkel to rework the European budget discipline pact (and thus change the course of Europe) will be closely scrutinized, as will be his blow hot-blow cold relationship with British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Still, Hollande’s long-time observers believe that the new president’s calm demeanour and wit will be his weapons of choice to battle the doubting Thomases and he will, like he always has, enjoy playing the smiling enigma. After all, springing a surprise is second nature to Monsieur Francois Hollande!
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© Thomas White International, Ltd. 2014