The travails of François Hollande are a symptom of France's deeper malaiseby Christine Ockrent / June 19, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
“The President is expected to behave as the embodiment of the Republic… Hollande is struggling to look the part” © Pool/Reuters/Corbis
At the end of May, François Hollande visited the Institut d’Études Politiques (or “Sciences Po”) in Paris, one of France’s elite universities and a supply line for the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), where the country’s top bureaucrats, known as énarques, are trained. Opening a conference on the future of Europe organised by the Berggruen Institute on Governance, Hollande reminded the audience that he had been a student on the same benches, and had taught economics in the same lecture hall. After a few words of greeting from the host, the President clapped heartily. That was awkward. The Président de la République is not supposed to applaud anyone but his peers, and then only sparingly.
Ever since the execution of Louis XVI, the French have thought of themselves as revolutionaries. But the truth is that they long for a monarch. They want the man (and so far it has always been a man) they elect to the Elysée Palace to come from le peuple—no businessmen or aristocrats allowed (Valéry Giscard d’Estaing made it, but he is a fake aristocrat). Once anointed, the President is expected to behave as the embodiment of the republic, the institution in full majesty. Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, forgot this basic principle when he involved his family in a Kennedy-esque inauguration ceremony and later used foul language to insult a passer-by, and spoke of his love affair with the model Carla Bruni at a press conference in one of the gilded rooms at the Elysée Palace (“With Carla, it’s serious stuff”). Hollande is struggling to look the part too, though for different reasons.
Disillusionment with traditional political discourse among the French people, of both right and left, has deepened as the economy has slowed and unemployment has grown. France is not the only country in Europe to be suffering from a kind of democratic fatigue, but the syndrome here seems particularly acute, and it has got worse since Hollande was elected. Populists of both right and left have been emboldened: Marine Le Pen on the extreme right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the extreme left denounce a self-satisfied elite, while a series of juicy political and financial scandals have helped to further stoke popular discontent. Trust in politicians, the media and the institutions of national and European government is draining away fast, while opinion polls show an unprecedented degree of pessimism about the future.