Skilled campaign brings Hollande to Élysée Palace


NOT A single opinion poll over the past six months suggested François Hollande would lose. Nicolas Sarkozy’s popularity ratings have been at record lows for much longer than that, and in the final days it was difficult to find any of his allies who genuinely believed he could pull it off.

And yet for all that, when the projections finally beamed across the television screens at 8pm yesterday, the reactions – euphoria on the left, crushing disappointment on the right – were a reminder that days like this don’t come very often.

For the first time in a generation, France will be led by a left-wing president. Until yesterday, only one socialist, François Mitterrand, had won a French presidential election. That fact has haunted the party more than it has inspired it, the burden of failure growing heavier with every successive defeat.

Throughout his campaign, Hollande modelled himself on Mitterrand, the touchstone for his generation of socialists. His posters looked uncannily like the 1981 model. So did his hand gestures, his intonation and his positioning as a quiet, unifying force who would first bring the left together, then France.

Yesterday, Hollande carried off the ultimate piece of Mitterrand mimicry by wresting control of the Élysée Palace from the right, and with an almost identical score. In 1981, Mitterrand was elected with 51.8 per cent of the vote. Yesterday, according to projections from Ipsos, Hollande won 51.9. And just as on that night 31 years ago, jubilant crowds laid claim to Place de la Bastille late into the night.

The win is due in no small part to the socialists’ own efforts. To the surprise of many, the party ran a tight, disciplined and imaginative campaign. Hollande’s manifesto was a carefully calibrated pitch that satisfied just enough left-wing and centrist voters to allow him assemble the formula that wins French elections.

He presented himself as the anti-Sarkozy – deliberate, consensus-building and unifying, where the president was impetuous, mercurial and divisive – and managed to make the “president of the rich” tag stick. But in the final weeks of the campaign, the man once known to party colleagues as “Flanby”, after a wobbly pudding, enhanced his own standing as a credible leader of one of the world’s major powers. Against expectations, he emerged stronger from last week’s television duel against Sarkozy, a famously strong debater, with even senior figures on the right conceding they may have underestimated their opponent. Once he convinced voters that being the antithesis of Sarkozy was not the only dimension to his appeal, he was over the line.

For Sarkozy, who conceded defeat in a sober, dignified speech to supporters in Paris last night, this is a humiliating loss. No European leader in recent times has had good odds for re-election, and the sharp rise in French unemployment badly damaged the chances of a president who built his winning campaign around the idea of work.

But the popular rejection of Sarkozy ran deeper. His abrasive personality, his exhibitionist soap opera lifestyle and his flashy tastes were an abrupt departure from the template set by aloof, discreet French presidents. The people didn’t like what they saw.

Within 14 months of Sarkozy’s election, his popularity ratings had hit 30 per cent. He never recovered. Even his successes – reform of pensions, autonomy for universities, a successful EU presidency, the diplomacy that ended the war in Georgia, or military intervention in Libya – did nothing to lift his support.

The result is that one of the most talented French politicians of his generation, a big personality who swept to victory promising rupture with old ways and imposed himself on French politics like few presidents ever did, has, five years on, been dealt a rare and ignominious rejection slip. Only once in the past 50 years has a sitting French president been denied a second term. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing is no longer alone in the history books.

Hollande will arrive at the Élysée Palace in the next 10 days with a big mandate and a strong wind behind him. Stylistically there will be a radical break with the Sarkozy era, and Hollande can count on plenty of goodwill over the coming months. But he faces a daunting in-tray. Unemployment will still be at a 12-year high this morning. The considerable budget deficit and public debts won’t have fallen. Hollande promises to increase spending in areas such as education, but pay for it by raising taxes on higher earners and re-orienting French and European policy towards measures that boost growth.

Here, Mitterrand offers another lesson. Within two years of assuming the presidency, the first socialist president was forced to reverse some of his major election pledges and introduce the first of several austerity budgets.

François Hollande must hope there is at least one way in which he doesn’t have to emulate the master.