Francois Hollande: France's Anti-Sarkozy President

Sarkozy c’est fini! Tracy McNicoll on how Hollande, nicknamed ‘Mr. Little Jokes,’ will govern as a deliberate response to Sarko’s five, exhausting years—and have the last laugh. Plus, Christopher Dickey on whether Hollande can really save France.

Bob Edme / AP Photo

"Sarkozy, c'est fini!" a happy crowd chanted, staccato, on Sunday night in Paris. "Sarkozy is finished!" They had collected en masse to fête their new champion, Socialist President-elect François Hollande, on the Place de la Bastille, the go-to gathering place for every leftist victory and the very spot where a 1789 prison raid lit a match under the French Revolution. A young, urban, diverse, colorful mass, the bravest climbing the iconic statue in the middle of the cobblestoned roundabout, flooded in well before the official results appeared on jumbo screens. When Hollande finally arrived after midnight to thank his supporters, the boom of revelers' red flares punctuated his short speech.

But there was a solemn undercurrent to this joy at a time of crisis. Witness a brown cardboard sign held high on Sunday night at the Bastille. On one side, "The poor bastard got lost," referring to Sarkozy, who impulsively suggested a heckler do likewise in a notorious 2008 incident. On the other side, "Bravo. And get to work."

Indeed, for all the revolutionary optics and "Change is now" sloganeering, the Socialist victors' language has been ostentatiously measured, in style and substance. To an extent, François Hollande's pledge for change is a break from Sarkozy's modus operandi of permanent, dizzying change, the hyperactive incumbent's way of keeping allies and enemies constantly guessing. Going forward, Hollande's presidency, from his very first minutes as president-elect, must be understood as the French will read it: in deliberate response to Sarkozy's five years of exhausting, divide-and-conquer-style rule.

Hollande waited for election results in Tulle, a small town in the rural heartland Corrèze region where he was elected to Parliament. The symbol was widely understood here in France as a knock on Sarkozy's flashy election night in 2007, when he famously attended a cocktail party with captains of industry and other notables at Le Fouquet's, an expensive brasserie on the Champs Élysées.

In his Tulle acceptance speech, Hollande quickly looked to dampen enthusiasm with talk of duty and heavy lifting. "The first duty of the president of the Republic is to gather together and associate every citizen to common action to take up the challenges that await us. And they are many. They are heavy." Party lieutenants made noises about humility and responsibility that should temper their joy, about pulling the nation together after a divisive contest.

Indeed, on election night both Hollande and Sarkozy asked their supporters to respect the rival candidate. The conciliatory language broke with the building nastiness in the concluding days and weeks of a heated campaign, as Sarkozy looked to seduce far-right voters, a move that some analysts warned all along was doomed. Political scientists will long debate Sarkozy's choice of exit. He could have played the statesman, competing for the center. Or built a case for a first-term record that, although checkered, was not indefensible. He could have gone out gracefully, arguing entirely plausibly that he had done more anyway in one term than most presidents do in two.

Instead, Sarkozy effectively used what may have been the very last days of his illustrious political career—he has said he would quit politics if he lost on Sunday night—to bury his most successful decade. Sarkozy made his name on tough talk about crime and immigration as he shepherded French policy on both as interior minister under Jacques Chirac and then as president. But, curiously, on the trail this time he was all too eager to convince National Front voters that the system was broken because he himself had let in "too many foreigners." Had the ploy worked, it might have been one of Sarkozy's great counterintuitive masterstrokes. Instead, it may simply be remembered as reckless and impulsive.

And that is where Hollande comes in. It is telling going forward that, to appear présidentiable, in the French parlance, Hollande had to fight against two character traits at different moments during his yearlong campaign for the Socialist nomination and ultimately the presidency. First, as a fiscal-policy nerd with a raft of élite degrees, a technocratic tendency to lose an audience in details. And second, a reflex for defusing tense situations with humor; that, and his lampoonable toothy grin, long earned him the disparaging nickname "Monsieur Petites Blagues" (Mr. Little Jokes). In fact, the moderate social-democrat Hollande is an inveterate consensus-builder, not a Sarkozy-style bull in a china shop. Indeed, the Socialist is likely much closer in temperament to German Chancellor Angela Merkel than the outgoing incumbent.

And that is key for a president-elect who promised to challenge German orthodoxy on austerity in Europe. Hollande's controversial stance, essentially to promote growth alongside budget discipline, has gained traction in Europe in recent months. But it has elicited concerns of a clash between France and Germany that would inject new market uncertainty as Europe continues to struggle through a crippling debt crisis.

Aside from questions of temperament, it is worth looking at the big picture and noting that, historically, newly elected French presidents are prone to differences with their German counterparts. The spats tend to fade over time, as French leaders come to see how fundamental a strong partnership with Germany really is. In fact, Sarkozy himself is a glaring example. In recent months, Sarkozy stumped for strict budget discipline, applauded the German economic model, and accused Hollande of fomenting anti-German sentiment for political gain. But Sarkozy's own start with Merkel was particularly rocky.

Remember during his 2007 campaign, Sarkozy emphasized French relations with Britain instead of Germany. And in a dubious effort to break with his predecessor's proclivity for what Sarkozy called "repentance" over France's past misdeeds, Sarkozy actually boasted in campaign speeches that France "did not invent the Final Solution." (As in, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, guess who did?) One of Sarkozy's first moves as president was to travel to Brussels to beg off France's promise to meet European Union–imposed budget targets. He irked Berlin repeatedly, not least by hoarding credit for a revised EU constitution in 2007, even though Merkel held the rotating EU presidency at the time. And yet, they got over it and would go on to earn the portmanteau "Merkozy."

But even during his reelection campaign, Sarkozy, desperate to pull up poll numbers, even broke an alleged pact with Merkel not to question the European Central Bank's role. And he threatened to unilaterally suspend France's membership in the Schengen Agreement that allows visa-free movement in Europe if his demands weren't met. Hollande, meanwhile, has said he won't play those empty-chair politics. Europe's driving pair are condemned to agree, and chances are they will. Sarkozy raised the specter of instant market turmoil if Hollande won. But as markets close in Europe on Monday, it is clear they are more nervous about Sunday's election results in Greece than they are about France's choice.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

In another break with Sarkozy, who thrived on surprises, Hollande set out his first moves as president in detail a month ago in a so-called Agenda of Change. They include decrees he will sign after his inauguration on May 15 and before a new national assembly is elected in June, for campaign promises like cutting the salaries of the president and government ministers by 30 percent and rolling back the retirement age to 60 for people who started working at 18 and have paid into the system for 41 years. Hollande also has a tight foreign agenda. In a phone call on Sunday night, Merkel invited him to Berlin ("with open arms") as soon as possible. Barack Obama, too, called to invite the Socialist for a bilateral meeting at the White House before the G8 Summit at Camp David May 18–19, and the NATO summit in Chicago on May 20–21.

Already on Tuesday, all eyes will be on the president-elect as he attends a ceremony alongside President Sarkozy to celebrate V-E Day, under the Arc de Triomphe.