France’s Enigmatic François Hollande: The Man Who Always Smiles

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Mathieu von Rohr, May 1, 2012.

All eyes in Europe are on François Hollande, the Socialist candidate who could become France’s next president on Sunday. The reserved technocrat has become more confident and presidential during the campaign, and makes up for his shortcomings as an orator by showing genuine empathy with people. But even his friends say he is hard to fathom … //  

… No one can say with certainty what kind of a president Hollande would be. He has the reputation of being a pragmatist, which suggests that he could quite possibly get along better with Merkel than one might surmise today. But although he is seen as a moderate socialist in France, his worldview is traditionally leftist. For Hollande, growth is something that should ultimately be left up to the state — or Europe and its central bank. He says that he is for “a serious budget, but against life-long austerity.” Nevertheless, his platform contains many costly ideas that could result in €20 billion ($26 billion) in additional expenditures. Whether Hollande would have the strength to reform France from the bottom up, or whether he would become something of a Chirac of the left, that is, a passive regent, remains to be seen.

Departure From Austerity in Europe:

Merkel’s refusal to meet with him, along with her support for Sarkozy, will not make future cooperation any easier. “It was certainly interesting that I wasn’t received,” says Hollande. A growing self-confidence has been evident in his campaign speeches in recent weeks. Hollande believes that his election will signify a departure from austerity policies for Europe, and it often sounds as if he were convinced that this would solve most things.

On the afternoon after his arrival in Quimper, Hollande takes a walk through the historic district. The campaign uses the term “deambulation” to describe these moments, and the chaos that ensues when the candidate turns up in a busy pedestrian zone. When that happens, all that is visible to an outside observer is a dense crowd of people surrounding Hollande, who is not a tall man. His position in the crowd can only be ascertained by the location of the microphones suspended above his head like antennae. He reaches out across his bodyguards to connect with passersby, who call out “Keep it up!” He can conjure up a smile in an instant, a smile that looks natural and genuine, except that his eyes remain serious.

It’s a stormy day as several hundred people stand under their umbrellas in the pouring rain, listening to Hollande speak in front of the cathedral. He leans forward, pushing his vocal chords to the limit, which is why he often sounds as if he were about to lose his voice. “I will protect you, Sarkozy said. And? Has he protected you?”

Always Underestimated:

Hollande is not a great speaker, unlike Sarkozy, but he gave an important speech at the end of January in an auditorium near Paris, when he put his campaign in the context of France’s history, and of socialism. It was his most significant appearance, because it was the first time he seemed presidential. He had been a loyal party soldier for years, but in all those years, he never made it to the top and was never a member of any administration. He is currently the president of the General Council of the département, or administrative district, of Corrèze. His fellow party members have variously derided him as a “Flamby,” or wobbly pudding, a “Marshmallow” and a “Woodland Strawberry.”

“People have always underestimated him,” says Stéphane Le Foll, one of his campaign managers. Le Foll was already his office manager when Hollande was first secretary of the Socialist Party, from 1997 to 2008. Hollande is a reserved person, says Le Foll, someone who never shows his emotions and yet is very accessible and assertive. A few weeks ago, Hollande’s 28-year-old son Thomas said: “I am like my father. I can’t say no.”

While leading the Socialist Party, Hollande was known as the “man of synthesis.” He would sit in a room with the representatives of all wings of the party and have them present their views, and by the end of these meetings, he could summarize what had been discussed in a way that reflected what everyone had said, but without revealing his own position. It would be a radical shift for France to be run by someone who seeks compromise — and it isn’t clear yet whether this would work.

There is a chapter in his life that Hollande doesn’t mention very often: his childhood. He was born in the northwestern city of Rouen in 1954. His biographer Serge Raffy writes that Hollande suffered under his authoritarian father, an irascible doctor who ran under a right-wing extremist platform in local elections. According to Raffy, his smile and his jokes already helped Hollande steer clear of conflicts at the time.

One of those rare intimate moments with Hollande during this campaign takes place in Tulle, the small city in southwest France where his political career began. It is the Saturday evening before the first round of voting, and the main shopping street is empty. Hollande is standing in a leather goods shop with his partner, the journalist Valérie Trierweiler, buying a gray handbag.

They step out of the shop together and walk, arm-in-arm, a few steps along the street. She lovingly wipes something away from the candidate’s chin. He seems tense and even a little lost. It must be the first time in weeks that he hasn’t been surrounded by a crowd.

Hollande knows most of the people in Tulle, where he served as a member of the city council and later as mayor. Tulle is what the French call his fiefdom. The former monarch, Mitterrand, had sent Hollande to Corrèze when he was 26 to capture a seat in parliament against Jacques Chirac, who later became president. “It was an unusual decision to go there,” says his old friend, Quimper Mayor Poignant. Hollande lost the election. “But he didn’t go back to Paris. He stayed. That’s exceptional and says a lot of about him.” His career began in this rural district, Corrèze, and it was there he learned to be folksy.

Now he could very well be on the verge of attaining the highest office in the French republic. If he wins, many Frenchmen will be glad to be rid of Sarkozy, and yet Hollande doesn’t exactly generate enthusiasm among his own voters. This becomes evident when, on the last day of his campaign before the first round of elections, he travels to Vitry-le-François in eastern France, where there is high unemployment and the right-wing populist Front National is strong. Of the 3,000 jobs that once existed in the local industry, only 300 remain in place today.

Although the local newspaper went to great lengths to announce his visit, there is almost no one waiting to greet him — except the usual throng of journalists crowding around him. The candidate eventually walks into a few clothing stores and bakeries, where he shakes the hands of the salespeople. He manages to pull off this disappointing appearance in a crowd that never materializes with as much dignity as possible. A drunk shouts after him: “There’s nothing here. It’s always like that in Vitry. And no one has ever kept his promises here.”

But by then François Hollande and his entourage are long gone. (full long text).
(Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan).

Links:

Archaeology – Clues to the Thirty Years’ War: Mass Grave Begins Revealing Soldiers’ Secrets, on Spiegel Online International, by Christoph Seidler, April 27, 2012: Victims of one of the bloodiest battles of the Thirty Years War. On a field in the town of Lützen, the Protestant army of Sweden’s King Gustav II Adolf went up against the Catholic Habsburg imperial army led by Albrecht von Wallenstein. Between 6,000 and 9,000 people died in the battle. Now archaeologists have uncovered a mass grave. Gallery: 23 photos.

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