France greets François Hollande’s political ‘death’ with relief

President’s decision not to seek re-election widely welcomed on both left and right

 

As he read his speech on Thursday night, the president of France looked like a convict climbing on to the scaffold. Although François Hollande will remain head of state for another five months, his announcement that he will not seek re-election marked his political death.

True to character, Hollande maintained suspense, saving the punchline, “I have decided not to be a candidate in the presidential election”, until the last moment.

A master of tergiversation, Hollande appears not to have made up his mind until this week. According to Le Monde, he even considered cancelling next month’s socialist primary – which he looked likely to lose – by invoking the terrorist threat or the danger of political division.

The socialists gave him a first-class political burial. “The president’s decision is that of a statesman,” prime minister Manuel Valls, the man who did most to nudge Hollande out the door, said yesterday. Overall, though, the prevailing mood was one of relief, as if the entire country would have shared in Hollande’s humiliation. The words that recurred most often were double-edged, praising Hollande’s “courage” and “lucidity” in admitting his own failure.

At least two commentators, the left-wing economist Thomas Piketty and the right-wing politician Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, said Hollande’s decision not to seek re-election was the best he had ever made in office.

There were harsher remarks too. François Fillon, presidential nominee for the right-wing Les Républicains, said Hollande’s term was ending “in a political mess and the rotting of power”.

The director of the conservative Le Figaro, Alexis Brézet, called Hollande’s speech the “sad epilogue of a null and void term of office . . . France has already turned the page . . . In truth, Hollande was never really president.”

Hollande had said he wanted to be a “normal” president. “One cannot be a president and normal in France,” Gérard Davet, the journalist and co-author of A President Shouldn’t Say This, told France-Info radio.

When Hollande was mocked by a Romanian teenager called Leonarda, photographed on the back of a motor scooter en route to a secret assignation with his mistress, when he confided carelessly in Davet and Fabrice Lhomme, the French found him unpresidential.

On a deeper level, Hollande failed to define or follow through on a clear political line, zig-zagging between his campaign promise to be the “enemy of finance” and his January 2014 espousal of supply-side economics. The latter lost him the support of communists, Greens and the left of his own party.

Jacques Attali, one of the late president François Mitterrand’s closest aides, is pleading for a single primary for the entire left as the only hope of avoiding collective suicide in the first round of the presidential election on April 23rd, 2017.

However, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the communist nominee, refuses to participate in a primary. So does Emmanuel Macron, the former economy minister and Hollande protégé who is standing as an independent. That leaves the former industry minister Arnaud Montebourg and Valls to fight it out at the polls next month. Montebourg looked poised to defeat Hollande in the primary. Valls is a more difficult prospect.

Valls is expected to resign as prime minister within days, when he announces his candidacy. The interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve, defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and health minister Marisol Touraine are possible replacements. Having chosen Fillon, and having united behind his reformist, free-market programme, Les Républicains are all but forgotten as the country focuses on the battle on the left, at least until the end of January.

Three left-wing ideologies are competing: neo-Marxists embodied by Mélenchon; a slightly modernised version of Keynesian welfare socialism, as practised by Montebourg; and the social-liberal or social democratic strain represented by Valls and Macron.

Three-quarters of respondents to an Odoxa poll published on Thursday said Valls would be the best candidate for the left. However, Valls has spoken of “two irreconcilable lefts” in France, and is viscerally rejected by the left of the party. He is trying to change his tough image by advocating a universal basic income and softening his hardline secularism, which antagonised French Muslims.

By saying he is “neither left nor right”, Macron denies political polarisation stretching back to the 1789 revolution. The socialist wunderkind may well find that “neither nor” is nowhere. As Mitterrand used to say, the centre is “the Bermuda triangle” of French politics.

In just two weeks, a frustrated and rebellious public have driven out three entrenched professional politicians. There is a sense of generational renewal and excitement, braked by fear of more jihadist attacks and the knowledge that the extreme right-wing Front National is waiting in the wings.

The FN leader Marine Le Pen would have preferred to face Nicolas Sarkozy or Hollande. She yesterday dismissed her adversaries in the presidential race as mere “understudies,” emblematic of the same old failed “system”.

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