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No more Mr Normal: Francois Hollande must change his style

This presidency has not even an hour for a honeymoon period. EPA Guillaume Horcajuelo

So what of the winner of the recent presidential elections on 6 May in France?

Francois Hollande celebrated his victory in his adopted local region, Tulle, not in flashy Paris. Hollande claims to want to be a “normal” President. And he is a nice, witty, and almost “accidental” President. He looks like your friendly local bank manager.

He is, in fact, a “party man”: a politician of consensus, compromise, and muddling through. As leftist presidential candidate, he did the usual tub-thumping leftist histrionics, but in debate he is quiet, unassuming, straightforward and, in fact, rather dull.

Is dull normal? In his last campaign speech (when the left knew they had victory in their sights) he spoke of the left’s ten years of preparing for this moment; they had waited, struggled, and reconstructed themselves. In fact, they had done nothing of the kind; rather, for the previous ten years, the party leaders had fought like cats in a bag – and for personal not ideological reasons.

Hollande presided over this mess rather ineffectively until in 2008 he was politely told by the party to go away. He did, and prepared what has turned out to be his own stunning comeback.

In order to give himself airs in the campaign, this intelligent, unassuming, straightforward party man, took on the airs, the language, the very gestures, he even leaned on podium in the same way, as the least straightforward of them all, the master Machiavellian, François Mitterrand. The left seemed to like it.

Perhaps normal it is not, after all, enough. For a while, his far-left adversary, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, with his dreams of 1789, stole his thunder. It was fun being reminded of the good old days, of Revolution or of Mitterrand – but there was a degree of absurdity in Mélenchon’s firebrand style and in Hollande’s impersonation of Mitterrand. It was like John Major imitating Churchill in order to persuade the Brits he would make a worthy Prime Minister, but suggests that “normal” isn’t going to cut it.

EPA/Ian Langson

Now, all the histrionics are over – well, for a while. Currently, President Hollande is trying to stay in his nice flat in the 15e, rather than live in the Elysée Palace. That’s pretty normal, but if Hollande had wanted a spell in a monastery or relaxing on a yacht before taking up the reigns of power he hasn’t time.

This presidency has not even an hour for a honeymoon period. Hollande has to act immediately to address the problem of the financial markets’ disapproval, and address the Eurozone crisis. He has immediately to go and see Angela Merkel to revise, if he can, the Eurozone fiscal package she and Sarkozy managed, at enormous effort, to put together. They together have to sort out or create a firewall against the Greek crisis. He has to fly to Washington to tell Obama he is pulling French troops out of Afghanistan ahead of time; then it is NATO, then the G20.

Hollande has no government experience at all; and not a nano-second of foreign policy experience. President Normal is about to be hit by a tsunami of issues, both domestic and international. He might need his own firewall of Gaullian grandeur just to keep him standing.

This raises the question of what the French presidency is for, and what kind of President the French expect. And this is where it gets complicated. In a word, can the French really cope with “normal”?

Sarkozy certainly wasn’t normal, but he was accused of not being presidential either. So what exactly is normal? The opposite of Sarkozy? None of the French Presidents have been normal. That’s why the Fifth Republic (1958- ) is not the Fourth (1946-1958). Perhaps Hollande isn’t like Sarkozy, but isn’t “presidential” either.

If that is the case, the Fifth Republic is in real trouble. The vans full of riot police all over Paris on Sunday night (I counted 15 around the Madeleine alone), the Elysée Palace all blocked off, the streets teeming with police and barriers on Monday, the helicopters and paraphernalia in the little town of Tulle waiting to fly the new President back to Paris, all suggest that the grandiose Fifth Republic presidency remains.

But it remains to be seen what “normal” means. Hollande seemed to suggest it meant respecting the Fifth Republic’s constitution. But this too would utterly transform the Republic – the Prime Minister not the President would name the government ministers, the President could not just call referendums at will (that’s just the start of what a constitutional Fifth Republic presidency would mean).

The Fifth Republic’s Constitution was made for de Gaulle, by de Gaulle, and he then simply ignored it, as did his successors. A President who followed the letter of the Constitution would transform the Fifth Republic utterly. In this, Sarkozy was far closer to what has become the spirit of the Constitution than Hollande has said he would be. But the French do not really want what is normal, but what is monarchical. Playing the part of the “Good King” might just do it, but there is deep and complex symbolism in the French presidency.

Practically, however, over and above the mountains the new President and government will have to move in the European arena, the problem of the almost palpable social anguish of at least six million voters (few of them fascists) who voted Le Pen, the inexorable rise in the unemployment figures, and the awfulness of the problems in the deprived suburbs where even the police won’t go anymore (barely a squeak on this issue in the months of campaigning), will determine the “character” of the presidency.

If the comrades had spent less time over the past ten years scratching each other’s eyes out, and more rethinking socialism for the 21st century (the current stress upon “tax and spend” and hope for growth is a recipe for economic and social catastrophe), they would have been in a much better position to cope with the problems about to engulf them.

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