The rise of François Hollande, France’s Mr. Bland

The presidential nominee for the centre-left Socialist party is a nerd famous for his lack of star power

The rise of Mr. Bland

David Vincent/AP

How do you lead a party out of the political wilderness and back to power against a charismatic incumbent? In France, the answer may be a short, bespectacled nerd famous for his lack of star power. François Hollande is the presidential nominee for the centre-left Socialist party, which used to dominate the presidency but has been out of power since François Mitterrand’s defeat in 1995. With the increasing unpopularity of centre-right President Nicolas Sarkozy, and a strong showing in the 2011 Senate elections, the Socialists see the upcoming April vote as their best hope to regain the top job. And they’re doing it with a guy nicknamed “Mr. Normal.”

Hollande might seem, at first glance, like the last person you’d pick to upset an international man of mystery like Sarkozy. Though he was Socialist party secretary for 11 years, he’s the type of functionary who always steps aside for more interesting people. In 2007, he lost the presidential nomination to Ségolène Royal, his partner at the time and the mother of his four children. This time around, the Socialists were prepared to pick the more glamorous Dominique Strauss-Kahn, but sex allegations against him proved too much for even the French.

With Strauss-Kahn unavailable, Hollande got the nomination almost by default, even though, as Foreign Policy’s Eric Pape put it, other politicians have tagged him as “spineless, too conciliatory, and the embodiment of the ‘mushy left’—and that’s just the commentary from members of his own party.” Things are no better for him on TV: On Les Guignols, a popular French show with marionettes, Hollande is portrayed as a pimply-faced nerd with a bad toupée and a tendency to giggle at inappropriate times. His image in France is comparable to that of Stéphane Dion in Canada—a plodding team player, not a winner.

And yet Hollande, with his uninspiring speeches about nuts-and-bolts domestic policy, leads Sarkozy by six points in the most recent poll. It may help that nerdy theories about taxation have never been more popular than they are now: with resentment of the rich at an all-time high, Hollande’s vow to raise taxes on high earners and profits, and to regulate banks, sound like fiery populism in an era when most European governments have become obsessed with budget-balancing.

Still, no one can win an election on policy alone, so Hollande has been trying to glamorize his image a little since his 2007 defeat. According to Le Figaro, he “changed his style of glasses and wore more elegant clothes,” and he’s lost 33 lb., leading to Les Guignols sketches about him wasting away from hunger. And though he’ll never make the gossip columns as frequently as Sarkozy or Carla Bruni, he has had a more tabloid-friendly private life in the last few years: he and Royal split up after her presidential defeat, amidst allegations that he’d had an affair with a journalist. When Hollande made a film recently listing all the great socialist politicians who came before him, he didn’t mention Royal, leading her to fume that she was being “erased from history” by her ex-lover. Proving that a winning politician can be nice and nerdy, as long as he inspires at least some juicy gossip.


The rise of François Hollande, France’s Mr. Bland

  1. Don’t underestimate this guy. First, he’s a very sharp person, much smarter than Sarkozy. While it is true that DSK was the favourite for the Socialist Party nomination, Hollande didn’t get nominated “by default” as stated in this article. He was running against other “elephants” (party leaders) and proved to be a fine tactician and good at getting defeated candidates joining him for the second round (all of them joined him against Aubry). He’s good at finding consensus when none seem to be possible, which is exactly what France needs now. France is done with “bling-bling” bullies and he will be the next president. Sarkozy has next to zero chance to be re-elected, as a lot of people in France not just dislike him, but hate him. Sarkozy has nobody else to blame but himself. He’s betrayed all the values French people are attached to and broken all the unrealistic promises he made during the last campain. Once bitten, twice shy.
    A couple more comments about Hollande. 
    – The journalist states that Hollande is uninspiring. I disagree with that. Hollande’s first campain speech at Le Bourget was truly inspirational, very well received by french people and he managed to connect with people better than anybody could have expected from him. The last one that managed to do that was Sarkozy in his 2007 speech and he won the election. You can watch Hollande’s speech here is you understand french: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xnwrm4_discours-de-francois-hollande-au-bourget-1e-partie_news#from=embediframe
    – Hollande has a very powerful sense of humour that can destroy anybody in a debate. The last time he had a televised debate was against Juppe, the former prime minister, who is considered one of the best at debating on the right side (“le meilleur d’entre nous” according to Chirac). Hollande out-maneuvered him easily… Again, don’t underestimate Hollande.

  2. Mitterand was not defeated in 1995 he died that year and was not seeking a third consecutive term

  3. Jaime, your writing on television is great but this article is fairly off the mark.

    First of all François Mitterand didn’t lose in 1995.  He was dieing from Prostate cancer and obviously didn’t run for another term.

    As well, François Hollande didn’t really lose the 2007 nomination.  He was considered one of the top candidates due to his position in the Parti socialiste but he was in a weakened position because of his support for the European Constitution.  In fact, I don’t really recall him running for the nomination and I can’t find any reference to that effect either.

    I’m glad you are interested in French politics but when it comes to writing, for now I think you should stick to television, opera and classical music.

  4. mr.Francois hollande france in next president (astrology methed) (master of astrology k.sunil _ sri lanka)

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