So off we went to la France profonde, to the Corrèze, and to the small town of Tulle. I have fond memories of Tulle. I once had a very good meal there and drank some excellent red wine from the nearby Tarn valley. For the French it evokes entirely different memories: in 1944 the retreating Waffen SS massacred hundreds of its inhabitants, hanging many from the lampposts. From now on it will also be remembered as the place where François Hollande became the second socialist President of the Fifth Republic.
By the time Hollande appeared in the Place de la Cathédrale it was pouring with rain but this clearly had done little to diminish the feelings of local pride and patriotism of Tulle's population. Austerity, Hollande announced, was not inevitable, and with the help of France's European partners, and above all of Germany, the future could be one of growth, employment and prosperity. Then, with Hollande's new partner Valérie Trierweiler at his side, accordionists began playing "La Vie en Rose". It might have been kitsch but there was not a dry eye in the house.
What followed was one of those very curious French rituals. The President-elect, having promised the faithful that he would return, made his way through the crowd — un bain de foule, as the charming French phrase has it — got into his car (a rather modest Peugeot, from what I could make out) and then headed to the airport at Brive, followed by scores of camera crews mounted on motorbikes. As we saw at tedious length, the man who embodied France's (and, apparently, Europe's and even the world's) hopes was on the telephone.
No sooner had Hollande arrived in Paris — and experienced another bain de foule — than he made his way to the Place de la Bastille, the traditional stomping ground of the French Left in times of celebration. Everyone was in on the act, including the ecologists, with their mighty score of less than 3 per cent in the first round, and even Robert Hue, former leader of the now almost extinct French Communist Party. I saw that Jean-Marie Le Pen had been right: Hue really did look like a garden gnome! By the time that Hollande stood before the immense crowd, no one in the audience looked as if they cared what was happening. The tennis player turned rock star Yannick Noah had entertained them and copious amounts of vodka had done the rest. When Hollande led a late-night rendition of La Marseillaise, most of the crowd seemed incapable of remembering the words.
So how can we explain this outcome? The first thing to note is that Hollande, with 51.68 per cent of the vote, secured only a slender majority. Little by little, Sarkozy had clawed his way back into the race. What we also know is that, in the second ballot, there was a record number of votes blancs: spoilt ballot papers. The evidence suggests that many of these came from people who had voted for the Front National in the first ballot and who had followed the advice of its leader, Marine Le Pen, to support neither candidate. Controversially, Sarkozy had gone all out to win over these voters, highlighting the themes of illegal immigration and the need to protect France's borders. Pouring scorn upon his socialist opponent, he had positioned himself as a political outsider battling against the left-wing bias of the media. Only in the very final days of the campaign did Sarkozy return to traditional Gaullist themes. The strategy succeeded but not well enough, and at a cost. Many at the political centre deserted him.
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