Mr. Nice Guy

France has chosen François Hollande, but can she fall in love with a man who lacks the passion of leaders past?


PARIS – How is it that France — the world’s fifth-largest economy — faced with intense credit-rating pressures, chose a Socialist to replace President Nicolas Sarkozy?

Yes, President-elect François Hollande, who bashed Sarkozy’s relationship to money far more than he bashed the rich themselves, is essentially a social democrat who has promised to be nearly as fiscally responsible as was Sarkozy. But that hardly gets at the core of France’s presidential passions. Of course, economic storms have now washed away 10 incumbent European leaders (make it 11, with Hollande’s victory), and after 17 years of presidents from the right, France was ready to balance the scales. Yet such explanations are, well, a bit wonkish, and a tumultuous, impassioned nation like France deserves a somewhat sexier take.

France, after all, is a woman — a strong, compassionate, alluring, complicated woman. She is La France. She is Marianne, a risqué mythical figure who embodies the country’s revolutionary struggles for liberty, equality, and brotherhood. It is no coincidence that on the old 100-franc bill, Marianne was famously represented by Eugène Delacroix holding a flag in one hand, a gun in the other, and heading into battle with her blouse coming off, leaving her breasts exposed. For the French, Freedom is also a woman, which is why it’s no surprise that New Yorkers see one when they look to Lady Liberty.

To many Americans, France is fine perfume, stylish fashion, refined cuisine, unapologetic feminine sexuality, and the victimized nation that required saving from the violating Nazi Germany of World War II. And yes, in many Americans’ vision — which carries at least a hint of old-school misogyny — France is also duplicitous, confusing, and particularly confounding in her taste in men.

Witness, then, the arrival of Hollande — a man who has spent his career as something of a character actor in French politics, present largely for comic relief. Yet, from among its many suitors, France has chosen Hollande, a man long caricatured as either a marshmallow or a brand of supermarket dessert flan. He’s a somewhat doughy, bespectacled Socialist with a sense of good humor and a history of seeking consensus. Even Hollande’s most loyal advocates would never argue that he was a passion candidate. (His 3-point victory came largely thanks to voters who simply wanted Sarkozy out.) Yet, on May 15 he will become France’s president for at least five long years — not a lifetime, but in France that’s quite a commitment.

To understand how it came to this, it is useful to look at France’s presidential relationship history. There was the great wartime love for the black-and-white era: Charles de Gaulle, the sturdy mustachioed embodiment of upright (and uptight) husband-like fortitude. France could count on him; he showed his mettle, and the love endured for a while. But one day, France realized that she enjoyed her memories of de Gaulle more than the present. Like many partners, de Gaulle had stopped growing, and the world passed him by. France wanted more.

She had other men — there was something of a looking-for-daddy phase — but she didn’t fall in love again for a while, and when she did, it felt like a sort of rebellion against her relationship with de Gaulle. France was excited and intrigued by François Mitterrand, but she only succumbed to his decades-long efforts at seducing her when she chose him in 1981. Mitterrand was the polar opposite of de Gaulle: a culturally refined and versatile-minded Socialist who spent time with intellectuals and frequented radical leftists. She had long resisted him — Mitterrand won the presidency only on his third attempt — but the love proved to be deep and complicated. Mitterrand ultimately toyed with his conquest, alternately pleasing, teasing, confusing, and fascinating her with the many labyrinthine corridors of his soul. Although France eventually became resentful of Mitterrand, she could never fully express it. He was profoundly ill, with cancer, when she found out about his many deceptions and betrayals, and he died soon after his 14-year run as head of state ended. The result was a confused mourning that made it hard for France to learn from the relationship’s dysfunctions.

But France learned something: She would never fall so passionately for anyone again. Her broad idealism would never recover. She would have fun, but she wouldn’t ever love again. In 1995, she hooked up with a good-time guy, Jacques Chirac. He was a likable enough guy, but with readily apparent flaws, and he said anything to get her into bed. Chirac was a bit like the good-natured but persistent guy at the end of the bar at closing time who just keeps talking. After putting up plenty of resistance, she went for it. Early on, she told herself, Chirac still exuded an air of the matinee idol, if not quite holding onto the looks of his youth.

But over time, Chirac proved to be the political equivalent of Charlie Sheen in Two and a Half Men. (Chirac, whose numerous quick trysts spurred his former driver to nickname him "10 Minutes, Shower Included," was similarly promiscuous in politics, making promises to all even when he had no intention whatsoever of keeping his word.) Still, he was a lot more fun than his sardonic, professorial Socialist competitor in 2002, Lionel Jospin, and thus France made the improbable decision to stay with Chirac a little longer.

By the end of Chirac’s time at the helm of France, his charms (like Sheen’s) had long ago worn away. The movie-star handsomeness had evolved into something, well, a bit sad. So France did what so many people do after a bad relationship: She went for something totally different. It wasn’t just that Chirac was tall and contemplative while Sarkozy was short and frenetic. Chirac was a stay-at-home guy who wouldn’t even repair the door handle; Sarkozy wanted to move France to another home, perhaps even to America.

Like the feisty, domineering, and controlling lawyer that he was in his soul, Sarkozy didn’t seduce France as much as he negotiated her to the altar. He would shake her, he argued, back to reality — get her life in order again. She never really liked him, but his storm of ideas was intriguing — at least at first. And who could resist such energy, such confidence?

Only later did France realize that Sarkozy’s obsession with himself was almost limitless. At times, she wondered whether Sarkozy even knew she was there. Worse, he seemed to lack boundaries, and he thrived on destabilizing her, which undermined her already fading confidence. Sarkozy had a million projects for them to take on, together, but he often got distracted, and she quickly began to wonder whether their relationship added up to anything meaningful. Spending time with him was akin to drinking too much coffee; it energized, but was rarely productive, and the buzz gave her a headache and made her crash. The result: France was left feeling older and more vulnerable, wondering whether her best days were behind her.

As her interest wandered, Sarkozy’s energy didn’t. To the end, he argued, often desperately, about why France should stick with him, how she would be nothing without him. No one would work harder than he would to make the relationship work. He even said that he risked his health trying to help her. She had to stay with him for her own sake, and for his.

Then, late in their relationship, there was a flirtation with another man. He seemed to have it all: intellect, gravitas, all of the money in the world (he oversaw the IMF). This jet-setting man, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, spoke of his compassion for the needy and his capacity to solve so many of her problems. Yes, there were rumors about him, but France wanted to believe that the perfect suitor existed. And just as France was ready to leave Sarkozy, Mr. Perfect turned out to be Mr. Perp Walk. His convictions, it turned out, were more courtroom than conscience.

Which brings us to France’s next president. How could a nation of lovers pick a schlumpy Socialist like François Hollande? There may be nothing sexy about Hollande, but that is entirely the point. France has for too long been betrayed, manipulated, lied to, and used.

In a sense, Hollande has long been supportive of France, often to his own detriment. He is the kind of guy whom everyone takes for granted — by Ségolène Royal, the politician and mother of his four children; by most of the Socialist Party leadership; and certainly by Sarkozy and his friends. Yet Hollande has, stunningly, defeated them all. He is the best friend, the one France never thought of in that way. But now he has, improbably, gotten the girl.

Monday morning, France is still asking herself what it will be like to actually live with President Hollande. There isn’t much natural passion there. But he seems to be a decent, thoughtful, supportive guy, which is important for a maturing lady like France. And maybe if she squints her eyes just so, he looks and sounds a bit like Mitterrand.

Hollande surely won’t torture or tease France in the same ways, but at the very least, he might be good company.

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