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François Hollande, France’s Tony Blair?

François Hollande, the socialist candidate in the presidential race, wants to be seen by the public as the “Mr. Normal” of French politics: calm, measured and reassuringly honest. In short, he wants to be seen as Nicolas Sarkozy’s antithesis. Hollande’s “normality” is reflected in the polls. In the first round of the presidential election, “Mr Normal” was in electoral terms “Mr Catch-all”. The socialist candidate fared well across all social classes; with men as well as women. Compared to all other candidates, this consistency is remarkable.

“Mr Normal” is not average though. He is on course to beat the incumbent president. According to the latest polls, Hollande is still 7 points ahead of Sarkozy, which is an unusually large gap at this stage of the race. Evidently, these are only polls and we shall see on Sunday whether Hollande manages “to inflict a crushing defeat” on Sarkozy. (To paraphrase Jean-Luc Mélenchon)

Appearances are deceptive. Because Hollande wants to impose a 75% income tax on earnings above 1 million euros and has talked about adding growth provisions to the EU fiscal compact, I hear City analysts crying wolf. How droll. Hollande is the quintessential moderate. He was the Parti Socialiste (PS) leader for 11 years and during that time he managed to preserve the unity of this most fractious party. He comes from the right-wing of the PS. In his younger days, he was close to Jacques Delors and other “social Christians”. This is hardly synonymous with left radicalism.

Hollande studied at HEC – a well-known business school in Paris, then ENA, the Grande Ecole which trains the country’s political elite. He is not an old-fashioned intellectual in the Mitterrand mould, but a sharp technocrat. Like most politicians today, he is ideologically adaptable and ambiguous. Asked on France Culture who were his political mentors, he gave a long eclectic list of names: the Dreyfusard Bernard Lazare, Jaurès, Blum, de Gaulle, Jean Moulin, Henri IV, Marquis de Condorcet, Victor Hugo, Clemenceau and Salvador Allende. He is not interested in political ideas and reads few books. Hollande is above all a pragmatist. If he trounces Sarkozy in the polls on Sunday, Hollande may have to govern on the left. If he narrowly wins, he might turn to François Bayrou and the centre.

When attending PS executive meetings, Hollande used to infuriate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. (The Left Front candidate in the first round of this election was a PS member until 2008). Mélenchon complained that every time Hollande was put in an awkward position, he would stop debating seriously and start making light-hearted comments or even cracking jokes to diffuse the tension. In 1999, Hollande and a PS delegation came to London to meet with Tony Blair. I was a member of Hollande’s party at the time so I was invited to join the French delegation. When we left Downing Street, Hollande matter of factly asked me whether Blair’s third way could be imported into France. I replied that anything is importable, but I warned that an attempt to bring to France Blair’s “Thatcherism with a human face” would result in the annihilation of the French left. Hollande looked bored. Before I could even finish my peroration, he put his hand on my shoulder and with a smile on his face he proceeded to tell me one of his trademark jokes.

Philippe Marlière is a Professor of French and European politics at University College London (UK). He can be reached at: p.marliere@ucl.ac.uk

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Philippe Marlière is a Professor of French and European Politics at University College London (UK). Twitter: @PhMarliere

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