François Hollande was in Nevers today, in the Burgundy region south of Paris. Five days before the runoff vote in France’s presidential election, and on May Day, the Socialist candidate had come to lay a wreath at the grave of Pierre Bérégovoy, two-time socialist finance minister and then prime minister during the last days of the Socialist parliamentary majority from 1992 to 1993.
I was in Paris 19 years ago tonight when I heard Bérégovoy had shot himself to death. I’ll never forget where a bunch of us students were when we heard the news. It wasn’t just grief over the Socialists’ legislative defeat that made him do it; it was a personal humiliation. As budget minister in the 80s and again in the 90s, he had to rein in Socialist spending while defending social-democratic goals. He had been attempting a similar feat — think Chrétien or Clinton or Schröder a couple of years later — when France’s voters tossed his party out. He’d lost his party’s favour for being a bad Socialist, and the electorate’s for being a Socialist. It was brutal treatment at history’s hands, and he killed himself.
Of course everyone thought the world of him as soon as he was dead. The last honest man, focused on results instead of image, why can’t politics be more like him, all of that. Today he is not often mentioned. In France as in other places, politics is polarized, the engaged voters are the ones who like to pick a side, and Bérégovoy remains essentially a confusing figure.
His appeal between rounds of a Presidential election is obvious, however. Hollande led the voting in the first round and is assured of the support of most voters to his left in Sunday’s runoff. Centrist voters are a tougher nut to crack. Hollande was here to do that work. He paid tribute to Bérégovoy as a “man who put the public accounts bck in order, who knew how to manage and who knew the value of money.” Now as then, he said, “the conservatives would like to make us think they know how to manage well.”
Anyway, because of the coincidence that had me in France the night Bérégovoy died, I was struck by Hollande’s gesture, and frankly touched despite the obvious electoral calculation behind it. But what’s hard to express is the extent to which nothing Hollande does matters, whether it’s the trip to Nevers or anything else. The coverage of this election is overwhelmingly coverage of Sarkozy. (My source is the websites of the main French newspapers, Le Monde, Le Figaro, Libération, Les Echos). The incumbent post-Gaullist president’s detractors in the press, which is most commentators, chronicle his excesses, easy work these days. His less numerous defenders focus on his perceived merits, ignoring his challenger.
I’m exaggerating, but less than you probably think. You can’t run for President of a country with twice Canada’s population and escape entirely unnoticed. It’s harder still if you’re the front-runner. But Hollande might as well stay home and read Stieg Larsson novels for all the influence he is having on the greatest political fight of his life. News websites change frequently, but as I write this the website of Libération, the most Socialist-friendly major daily, mentions Sarkozy 30 times on its front page and Hollande only five. And even then Hollande is mentioned only in conjunction with Sarkozy, not for his own campaign activities. The two men will debate, for the only time in this campaign, on Wednesday night. It will give a lot of voters a chance to meet the man who has led in every poll for months as their next President.
(I’m obviously aware of the danger of making definitive predictions in a blog headline based on polls, after last week’s Alberta returns. Oh well.)
Readers of this blog, and especially commenters, are often eager to analyze politics according to their own preferences on a left-right spectrum. Not that those readers will listen to me now, but I think that’d be a mistake in understanding the extraordinary fixation of the French press on Sarkozy, in preference to the man who will probably defeat him. Sarko’s politics were, by design, impermeable to any consistent left-right analysis until after the first round of voting nine days ago. Then he spotted Marine Le Pen’s voters as his best shot at keeping his job and has campaigned between rounds as a star pupil in the National Front junior league. Even that doesn’t say much about his convictions, only about the perfect vacuum where a man’s convictions should be. I don’t think the focus on Sarkozy is about politics, it’s about personality. Sarkozy is one of the great narcissists of our time. Narcissists always manage to get their way in the end, with everyone staring at them.