The Challenges, Policies, Wit, and Wisdom of Francois Hollande

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Everything you need to know about the newly elected French president.

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France's newly-elected President Francois Hollande celebrates on stage during a victory rally at Place de la Bastille in Paris. / Reuters

Streaks are made to be broken. After seventeen years on the outside looking in, a Socialist Party candidate has finally returned to the French presidency. François Hollande defeated Nicolas Sarkozy by four percentage points, 52 percent to 48 percent. Hollande's victory marked the first time in more than four decades that an incumbent French president lost his reelection bid. The man who vanquished the incumbent back in 1981 was François Mitterand, the last Socialist Party president and Hollande's idol. Hollande hopes to match or even outdo his hero. If he succeeds, he will enter the pantheon of great French presidents. Why? Because France's unemployment rate stands at a twelve-year high of nearly 10 percent, its economy is expected to grow by at most 1 percent in 2012, and its debt-to-GDP ratio exceeds 85 percent and is headed higher. As they say, to the victors go the toils.

The Basics

  • Name: François Gérard Georges Hollande
  • Date of Birth: August 12, 1954
  • Place of Birth: Rouen, Seine-Maritime, Upper Normandy, France
  • Religion: Undetermined (French politicians typically do not discuss their religious beliefs)
  • Political Party: Socialist Party (center-left)
  • Marital Status: Never married, but he and former Socialist Party presidential candidate Ségolène Royal had four kids together. His current companion is Valérie Trierweiler, a French political journalist.
  • Children: Thomas (b. 1984), Clémence (b. 1985), Julien (b. 1987), and Flora (b. 1992)
  • Alma Mater: HEC Paris, ENA Strasbourg, and the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris
  • Political Offices Held: First Secretary of the Socialist Party (1997--2008), Mayor of Tulle (2001--2008), and President of the General Council of Correze (2008--present)

What Supporters Say. Hollande certainly had supporters eager to see him become president. At one rally in Paris, 18,000 of them chanted "François president!" But much of the support for Hollande came from voters who had tired of Sarkozy and wanted a change. As one Hollande supporter told the press:

Remove Nicolas Sarkozy, who made too many mistakes in the course of five years, who made poor choices that divided the French.

Hollande won a big boost when former French president Jacques Chirac abandoned Sarkozy, who once served under him, and threw his support behind Hollande. Chirac, a towering conservative figure in France, rarely makes public appearances as he struggles with Alzheimer's disease. However, one of his close associates, historian and writer Jean-Luc Barre, made headlines when he told Le Parisien in April that:

Jacques Chirac is true to himself when he says he will vote for François Hollande.

Former French prime minister and failed presidential candidate Lionel Jospin, who is popular with the rank-and-file in the Socialist Party, also supported Hollande. Jospin thinks so highly of Hollande that he told an interviewer that had he won the 2002 French presidential election:

I had the idea of making him a minister...or more.

French voters elected Hollande because of his policies, but his sense of humor probably helped as well. French stand-up comedian and film actor Gerhard Proust said of Hollande's wit:

He's very good. I even kept an article of his in my notes because it was so funny. And he's the only politician who writes his own lines...You look at me and you say 'this guy will never make me laugh.' It's the same with Francois Hollande. But that's a good thing, because people are more easily surprised.

Hollande's weight may have even been a positive. Hollande wants to repeal many of the austerity measures that Sarkozy imposed. French commentator Christian Salmon observed that was an appropriate position for Holland to take because: "You can't preach austerity with a double chin".

What Critics Say. Some of Hollande's critics call him "dangerous." Others dismiss him as "Flanby," a kind of caramel custard, because he "cultivates blandness." Hollande's perceived softness will hurt him going forward, says Marie-Eve Malouines, political editor for French Info radio:

In France we like our presidents tough. François Hollande thinks that now, because of the economic crisis, the French might want a different sort of leader. He thinks people want to pull together around a president who is kind.

During the campaign, far-left challenger Jean-Luc Mélenchon called Hollande a "captain of a pedalo in a storm." (A pedalo is a small paddle boat.) In the late 1980s, Sarkozy "once likened [Hollande] to a sugar cube, arguing he 'dissolves in water.'"

The Economist, which endorsed Sarkozy back in 2007, calls Hollande "rather dangerous":

It seems very optimistic to presume that somehow, despite what he has said, despite even what he intends, Mr. Hollande will end up doing the right thing. Mr. Hollande evinces a deep anti-business attitude. He will also be hamstrung by his own unreformed Socialist Party and steered by an electorate that has not yet heard the case for reform, least of all from him. Nothing in the past few months, or in his long career as a party fixer, suggests that Mr. Hollande is brave enough to rip up his manifesto and change France.

Perhaps the sharpest dig at Hollande came from his former partner and the mother of his four children, Ségolène Royal. During the primaries, she asked a startling question:

Can the French people name a single thing he has achieved in thirty years in politics?

Monsieur Hollande and Madame Royal may have some unresolved issues.

An elderly French voter captured the sense of many French people that President Hollande won't change much. Their skepticism isn't based on concerns that Hollande is weak, but rather that France's dire economic problems require painful choices that no one wants to make:

The situation is so catastrophic that whoever wins it won't make much difference. The French want change but only on the condition that it doesn't change anything for them.

Sadly, this statement describes more than just French voters.

Stories You Will Hear More About. If Hollande's name doesn't sound "French," it's because it isn't. His surname reflects the fact that his ancestors were Calvinists who "escaped the Netherlands in the 16th century and took the name of their old country."

Although Hollande may trace his ancestry back to the Netherlands, he had a typically French upbringing. He was born in Upper Normandy in 1954. His father ran in a local election in 1959 as a right-wing candidate. The elder Hollande's political ambitions, if not his ideology, apparently had an effect on the son. Hollande's mother once told French TV that "as a child he wanted to be president." As a teenager, Hollande was a candidate for classroom representative and also for leader of the student union. He certainly went to the right school for French politics: the Ecole Nationale d'Administration. ENA is known as the "factory of the elite" in France. But, according to Hollande's friend and current adviser Dominque Villemot, he did not fit the ENA stereotype:

His flat was always pretty sparse, the furniture simple. He didn't have a car, he had a scooter. In Corrèze, he slept in a little room above his office. He never wore smart suits, even at ENA. That's part of his personality.

It was at ENA that Hollande met Ségolène Royal. They stayed together until the 2007 presidential election when Royal became the Socialist Party's presidential candidate. In doing so, she beat out Hollande, who was also a contender. Whether the nomination battle caused the breakup or not, Hollande left Royal for the political journalist Valérie Trierweiler. The two remain a couple and celebrated his electoral victory together. (This, of course, is further evidence that France is not the United States.)

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James M. Lindsay is director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He writes at The Water's Edge.

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