France's president elect, Francois Hollande, could not be more different from his erstwhile opponent, Nicholas Sarkozy. A convivial, somewhat rumpled, self-proclaimed "normal" man, Hollande cuts a rather average figure. He identifies publicly with ordinary French people, and appears to chat comfortably with supporters along the campaign trail.
In contrast, Sarkozy is blunt and impatient. He has been known to vacation in Wolfeboro, NH with millionaire friends, while people back home criticise his displays of wealth as vulgar and American. At the same time, Sarkozy has prided himself on ridding the presidency of its stubborn vestiges of royalty. With American-style demands for transparency and accountability, he has acquired a reputation as an iconoclast, whom some consider crass. In trampling tradition, he has caused collateral damage to French sensibilities.
Hollande is a more familiar type of career politician: a paunchy devotee of wine, cheese and chocolate who has been referred to as "Flanby," after a soft French pudding. He favors medium gray suits and was long considered to be a second rank contender. Martine Aubry, the head of the French Socialist Party once called him a couille molle, a down and dirty epithet meaning "spineless."
Hollande's credentials are anything but second rank. He's a graduate of "l'ENA" (l'Ecole Nationale d'Administration), the highly selective graduate program that grooms the elite for top level government posts. Regardless of party affiliation, powerful ENA graduates traditionally remain close throughout their careers.
Hollande's former domestic partner and the mother of his four children, Segolene Royal, graduated from the ENA the same year he did. Royal defeated her ex-partner to run as the Socialist candidate for president against Nicholas Sarkozy in 2007, then lost the general election. She remains a prominent figure in the Socialist Party.
Francois Hollande was born in Rouen, in Normandy in 1954. His father was a doctor and his mother a social worker, and he says it's from them that he learned to take others into account. He attended the Institut d'etudes politques de Paris, a prestigious institution of higher education that specializes in the social sciences, politics, history, law, and business. Sciences Po, as it's popularly called, is frequently a stepping stone to the ENA.
Throughout his student years, Holland was an ardent, if good-natured, leftist who worked for various unionist movements, even agitating for democratic reform of the starchy ENA while studying there. His field of choice was economics, and as a student volunteer he wrote white papers for Francois Mitterand's campaign to become the first Socialist president of France in 1974. Mitterand lost the second round of the election to Valery Giscard d'Estaing, and would wait until 1981 to become president.
Five years later, at age 25, Hollande, joined the Socialist Party. But his political career has been marked by stinging defeats, starting with a loss to the neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac in his 1981 bid for a seat in the National Assembly. He became a Special Advisor to then newly elected Mitterand. In 1983, he served as a Municipal Councilor for Ussel, a city in south central France, in the administrative district of Correze. He did win a seat in the National Assembly in 1988, but lost it again in 1993 in a wave of right wing reaction to Socialist Party policies.
The late 1990's were marked by inner turmoil for the French Socialist Party. Hollande opted for a conciliatory role in the power struggle. He called for a reuniting of the party, first behind Jacques Delors, the President of the European Commission, who in the end declined to run for the national presidency. Later he championed Lionel Jospin, who became Prime Minister of France in 1997. That same year, voters in Correze returned Hollande to his seat in the National Assembly.
With Jospin serving as Prime Minister, the French Socialist Party elected Francois Hollande as its First Secretary, a position he filled for eleven years. In 2001, he was also elected Mayor of Tulle in Correze, the position for which he is known to many voters today. But during the early millennium, Hollande's authority over his party eroded, and in 2007 he was replaced as First Secretary by his domestic partner Segolene Royal. He was widely blamed for the poor performance of his party in the 2007 presidential elections, which Royal lost to Nicholas Sarkozy.
It is widely believed that Hollande only emerged as a viable presidential candidate in 2012 because the lead contender, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, met disgrace as a result of a sexual harassment scandal in the United States. And his victory is regarded as a vote against Sarkozy, not a personal triumph. There's little doubt that he has ridden a wave of backlash against austerity.
It's difficult not to project his difficulty holding on to power while the Socialist Party leader on to his upcoming presidency. Does he have what it takes to govern, or will his persistent adherence to what he sees as the right causes do him in? His platform is popular, but to some it looks like old-fashioned "tax and spend": raise the minimum wage; hire sixty thousand more teachers; lower the age of retirement; and, of course, raise taxes.
Road to ruin or recipe for recovery? By themselves these measures would certainly increase debt. But Hollande himself points to his history of defeat as the whetstone on which he has honed important presidential skills. There's reason to believe he's learned from the past, and may adopt his German counterpart's strategy of small, incremental steps.
Many of the 60,000 new teachers will come from other civil service positions, so they are already on the payroll. The age of retirement would only go from age 62 to 60, and the minimum wage increase would be minimal. At any rate, Hollande has little choice but to compromise with German Chancellor Angela Merkel by ratifying her fiscal discipline pact at the same time that he enacts measures to stimulate growth.