An expert's point of view on a current event.

A Real Nowhere Man

François Hollande might just be boring enough to beat Nicolas Sarkozy.


PARIS – Based on the headlines, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has had a pretty good few months. He spearheaded the ultimately successful international effort to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi, recovering from a flat-footed early response to the Arab Spring. He has been on the barricades pushing for an aggressive response to save the eurozone from debt turmoil. Even his personal life is on the upswing: His wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, gave birth to a baby girl, Giulia, on Oct. 19, guaranteeing endless humanizing press coverage six months before the presidential election. 

Unfortunately, nobody seems to have told French voters, who continue to heavily favor Sarkozy’s Socialist challenger, François Hollande. The distinction between the two seems to have more to do with style than politics. Hollande has long been known as the Disappearing Man of French politics, best known for fading into the background in support of more dynamic and exciting candidates. Up against the omnipresent, attention-hogging Sarkozy, this has become a serious advantage. If Hollande can make the election into a referendum on the current leader, a sort of Sarkozy-vs.-Sarkozy campaign, the incumbent will join the ranks of France’s unemployed.

Like many incumbents these days, Sarkozy is stunningly unpopular — nearly two voters in three disapprove of him, and those numbers have hardly budged in the last 18 months. Leading in a time of enduring economic crisis that has undermined many policy ambitions doesn’t help. But his presidential style is also to blame. Throughout the first four years of his term, Sarkozy’s constant media presence tended to highlight that he was the center of France’s political universe rather than his efforts to solve the nation’s problems.

Beyond that, Sarkozy has failed to offer a coherent and convincing vision of where he is taking France. His communications team has, in recent months, gone to great effort to repaint him in more traditionally presidential colors, limiting his media appearances and highlighting his now extensive political experience.

But the self-effacing, low-key Hollande could be the perfect candidate to quietly lead his party to victory. The 57-year-old center-leftist demonstrates little of the flamboyance, flair, and grandiosity that have characterized recent French presidents. Whereas Sarkozy savored his 2007 presidential election by driving up the Champs-Élysées escorted by flashy police motorcycle outriders and later recovered from the campaign on the Mediterranean-moored yacht of a billionaire industrialist, Hollande recently won  the Socialist candidacy after campaigning via motor scooter.

If ever there were a moment for a "normal president," which is what Hollande promises, it is following Sarkozy’s difficult term. The incumbent initiated the "bling-bling" presidency with nouveau riche penchants — aviator sunglasses, expensive gaudy watches, adulation of rich friends, and his very public courtship of supermodel turned pop singer Carla Bruni. Hollande’s Mr. Normal shtick is an implicit slap at Sarkozy’s neurotic personality, his desecration of the near-royal French presidency, and his micromanaging style that goes against the traditionally above-it-all head of state’s role.

All this helps explain why Hollande leads Sarkozy — who is expected to officially declare his candidacy early next year — by an astounding margin, 60 percent to 40 percent (in a head-to-head two-candidate race).

France isn’t necessarily the kind of country where you would expect an everyman candidate to catch fire. Six months ago, it would have been unimaginable to many voters. The Socialists were on schedule to select a larger-than-life, gravitas-laden candidate, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, until an incident in a New York hotel room got him in trouble with the law and highlighted indecorous proclivities that gave even the normally permissive French electorate pause. Chastened, the Socialists turned to Mr. Nice Guy. Hollande’s self-promoted normality also highlighted the contrast with the materially flamboyant Strauss-Kahn, whose wife is worth tens of millions of dollars, in a country where many voters, especially on the left, are suspicious of extreme wealth.

In politics, of course, nice guys rarely garner much respect. It isn’t just that Hollande has never been one of the Socialist "elephants" (i.e., heavyweights). During the 11 years of his party presidency, he often came across as a Jim Belushi-like supporting character, someone who offers witty repartee to the leading man or woman. Unlike past party leaders prone to use their power to eliminate rivals, Hollande has been more of a beast of burden, and a butt of jokes and criticism. Other politicians have tagged Hollande as spineless, too conciliatory, and the embodiment of the "mushy left" — and that’s just the commentary from members of his own party (including his ex-partner, 2007 presidential candidate Ségolène Royal). Over the years, such sentiments have been encapsulated by the influential satirical television show, Les Guignols, which has portrayed the plump Hollande as an amorphous marshmallow, a flan, and a cheese.

This air of disrespect for Hollande was cemented during France’s last national electoral cycle when Royal — the mother of Hollande’s four children — leapfrogged over the Socialist leader’s own ambitions and nabbed the party’s presidential nomination while he looked on helplessly. (Adding insult to injury, during her presidential campaign she pretended that they were still together to avoid having journalists delving into her private life, forcing Hollande to keep his own relationship with a French political journalist secret.)

If Hollande honed his ability to keep quiet during his ex’s run for the Socialist candidacy — to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest within the party — he continued his discretion during her campaign against Sarkozy. While Hollande oversaw a slew of Socialist victories in local and regional elections during his tenure as party chief, his disappearing act allowed dissent within the party to undermine Royal. In the end, Sarkozy defeated Royal decisively and, on that sour note, Hollande stepped down as party leader.

Hollande probably wouldn’t have guessed that he would become presidential fodder when he was growing up as the child of a left-leaning social worker and a doctor who ran as a far-right candidate in the early 1960s. His father’s political beliefs ended up interfering with his medical practice, spurring him to suddenly move the family to the posh Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine when Hollande was a teenager. (Ironically, Neuilly later became Sarkozy’s conservative political fiefdom.) Hollande later earned degrees at the prestigious ENA administration school — where he met Royal — and at the elite finishing school for most of France’s top politicians, Sciences Po.

Although Hollande’s critics note that he has never held a ministerial role in any French government, has little formal experience in international affairs, and has never run a company or held a major executive position in politics, he is a seasoned political pro who has worked closely with the most influential leftist politicians of the last three decades.

He worked on François Mitterrand’s failed 1974 presidential campaign, joined the Socialist Party in 1979 and, following the Socialist’s election to the presidency, was named as an economic advisor at the Élysée Palace when he was just 26. Mitterrand asked Hollande to run for Parliament against conservative Jacques Chirac in 1981 in the heartland department of Corrèze. Hollande lost, but when Mitterrand won a second presidential term (over Chirac) in 1987, Hollande was voted into Parliament in a nearby seat.

As a politician, Hollande has been literally reshaped by his current companion, television journalist Valérie Trierweiler. She has encouraged his devotion to the Dukan diet — a low-carb regimen popular in France — that has transformed him from doughy to gaunt. His physical change, along with extensive recent communications training, has allowed French voters to see and hear him in new ways. With his slim look, receding hairline, and studied new cadences, many leftists note similarities to Mitterrand, whose stature for French Socialists is akin to Ronald Reagan’s in the Republican Party.

Hollande’s middle-of-the-road political beliefs mirror his public persona. Ideologically, he’s a pragmatic center-leftist; when he first declared his candidacy, he was clearly aiming for a similar placement on the political spectrum as Strauss-Kahn, gambling (correctly, it turned out) that the Socialist heavyweight would not end up being a candidate. Hollande backed Sarkozy’s foray into Libya, though he has questioned the president’s previous policies elsewhere in the region. He has generally promised fiscal responsibility while objecting to Sarkozy’s efforts to add a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. He has acknowledged that his near-term ambitions for France will be constrained by the state of the economy that he might inherit.

Although the president doesn’t intend to announce his reelection campaign until early next year, his communications team is testing its arguments against Hollande. In these times of tumult, the French shouldn’t "change captains in a storm" and "hand over the ship" to a man of inexperience. Pro-Sarkozy politicians also play the fear card, asserting that electing a Socialist president will automatically trigger the end of France’s AAA credit rating, due to the perception that the left-wing are free spenders — even though French debt has grown for three decades regardless of who has been in power.

"The right is counting on the crisis to save it," Hollande summarized as he accepted his party’s candidacy on Oct. 22. "I believe the left can save France from the crisis."

Although Hollande holds a commanding lead, it could all disappear before the first round of voting begins in late April. French leftists have proved to be remarkably deft at undermining their presidential candidates in recent elections. And Sarkozy, a relentless campaigner, is at his best when he has someone to battle with. (This is why Hollande has repeatedly argued that though Sarkozy has been a terrible president, he remains a very strong candidate.

Charles Pasqua, an elder statesman of France’s right, told me prior to Hollande’s primary victory that Sarkozy would prefer to run against a "dynamic left-wing" candidate with whom he could engage in a head-on ideological battle. "The worst would be to have a candidate on the left without any major dynamism or ideas," he explained, as that could spur voter abstention on the right. Essentially, he said, conservatives might not see enough differences on the issues that they care about to make it into the voting booth.

He has a point. While the left is all but certain to unite against Sarkozy regardless of who their candidate is, many on the right may feel that there is little to mobilize in favor of and not all that much to mobilize against. Improbably, this apathy might just be Hollande’s most likely path to victory.

Eric Pape is a writer in Paris.

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