Next we need to understand the intensity of the hostility directed towards Nicolas Sarkozy. This is not the place to assess the achievements of his presidency. They were many, and they were gained in a very challenging economic environment. Forging an alliance with Angela Merkel to stabilise the euro was not the least of these achievements. Nor was a willingness to use France's air power to help remove Muammar Gaddafi. University reform was another. Yet, almost from the beginning, a sizeable proportion of the French population saw Sarkozy as an object of contempt. This had little to do with the complexities of his private life —lest we forget, Sarkozy divorced, remarried and had a child while President — and derived more from what was widely perceived as a lack of style and behaviour appropriate to his office. Time and time again the decision to celebrate his victory in 2007 at an expensive restaurant in Paris came back to haunt him. Never was he able to shake off his reputation as "President Bling-Bling". Opinion polls indicate that 55 per cent of those who voted for Hollande did so in order to "barrer la route à Sarkozy".
Sarkozy had another major weakness: he consistently misjudged the determination and durability of his main opponent. This was perhaps understandable. Hollande has never held ministerial office and has spent most of his political career as head of the ever-fractious Socialist Party. While undoubtedly intelligent — like many French politicians, Hollande is an "enarch", a former student of the prestigious Ecole Nationale d'Administration — he came over at best as worthy and uninspiring. Indeed, had not Dominique Strauss-Kahn so dramatically blotted his copybook in a New York hotel bedroom, Hollande would never have been a presidential candidate. But, much slimmed down, and with new glasses and a new girlfriend — a journalist on Paris Match — it was Hollande who beat off his rivals and received his party's nomination.
There has been, and still is, much discussion about what sort of socialist Hollande is. François Mitterrand is a clear reference point. So is Jacques Delors. Unlike many of his colleagues, Hollande did not pass through the extreme Left in his youth. In fact, Hollande is relatively light on ideology. He has never disguised his commitment to the core republican value of laïcité. He supports gay marriage and the right to assisted suicide. If anything, he is a decentraliser, believing that policies are best implemented at local level rather than by Paris. Hollande has never shown any enthusiasm for tax cutting. He supported the proposed European constitution in 2005. Revealingly, when Hollande talked about "the French dream" during his campaign, it was in terms of the modest hope that future generations would have a better life.
It is this relative lack of firm commitments that in part explains why Hollande is seen by friends and foes alike as "Mr Normal". Moreover, after the outbursts and emotional unpredictability of Sarkozy, this is seen as a strength rather than a weakness. Simplicity and a lack of ostentation are trademarks of Hollande's style. This also helps us understand what Hollande means when he has talked of being a "normal" president. Sarkozy earned the sobriquet of "omniprésident". He interfered in everything and considered nothing beyond his reach. Hollande sees the presidential office in almost Gaullist terms: above all, he has repeatedly declared, the president should be the guarantor of national unity and of republican principles. The charge against Sarkozy is that he was neither.
However, this also means that there are whole areas of policy where we have only the dimmest perception of where Hollande stands. With regard to foreign policy, for example, we have very little to go on. Hollande intends to preserve France's nuclear strike force. He has indicated that French combat troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of this year. He has also said that France will recognise a Palestinian state. For the rest we are left with a vague reference to a renewal of multilateralism. We know nothing, for instance, of Hollande's views on the recent popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. Nor has he stated a position on how we should respond to dangers posed by a nuclear Iran. On energy policy, Hollande has promised to reduce the level of electricity generated by nuclear power from 75 per cent to 50 per cent by 2025 but he has not explained how he thinks that renewable sources will make up the shortfall and at what cost.
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