For a man who could become the next president of France—recent polls have him beating Nicolas Sarkozy 57%-43% in a run-off—François Hollande is difficult to pin down. He led the Socialist Party (Parti socialiste, or PS) for a decade, but has never held a cabinet position. He made a career-defining choice of shirking the party’s internal caucuses. Consequently, he is not identified with any particular “flavor” of socialist politics. He is perhaps best known for his bonhomie and mischievous sense of humor. Back in 2002, I heard him speak at a municipal gymnasium somewhere in the Ménilmontant neighborhood of Paris. He works an audience well, using a familiar, conversational style reminiscent of a stand-up comedian. He is said to be popular with journalists. Yet in the past year, as he has prepared to compete in the socialist primary, he has made a conscious effort to appear more serious: he’s lost his roly-poly figure, donned trendy glasses, and become sparing in his use of bons mots and petites phrases.
For a long time, Hollande’s lack of a clear public persona was largely offset by the very large personality of his ex-partner, Ségolène Royal—former cabinet minister, presidential candidate in 2007, and, at present, one of Hollande’s rivals for the socialist nomination. They fell in love at the ENA, France elite administrative school and spent their twenties as rising stars working for President François Mitterrand. The couple never married (Ségolène did, however, once catch her partner off guard, jokingly asking him on television: “François, will you marry me?”—to which he lamely replied, “We’ll talk about it later…”). But Ségolène’s star rose faster than François’. She joined Prime Minister Pierre Bérégovoy’s cabinet in 1992 while in her mid-thirties. She created a media stir when she gave birth to their fourth child while serving as environment minister—and promptly returned to work. Some wags have dubbed Hollande “Monsieur Royal.” Though they were on more or less equal footing during the Jospin government (1997-2002)—with François serving as socialist leader and Ségolène holding several ministerial portfolios—Hollande was again overshadowed by his partner when, in 2007, she won the party’s nomination for president, becoming the first French woman with a serious chance of being elected (though she was ultimately defeated by Nicolas Sarkozy). But 2007 was, alas, the election in which everyone split up: Cécilia Sarkozy dumped the new president, and, François and Ségolène, after twenty-seven years, called it quits.
Hollande’s political significance, however, goes well beyond his wit and his ex. If he is in a position of winning the socialist primary on October 9, it is because he is particularly emblematic of French socialism’s evolution over the past ten to fifteen years. Hollande is a poster child for the professionalization of the Socialist Party—its transformation into a genuine “party of government,” largely focused on the same issues as the center right: market liberalization, economic modernization and, above all, European integration. He represents what many leftists refer to contemptuously as “socialism of adjustment”: a project aimed at adapting France to the globalized marketplace while softening neoliberalism’s harder edges, rather than fighting for social progress. The greatest irony—and weakness—of Hollande’s campaign is that he incarnates the PS’s development into a “party of government” without ever actually having served in government. He’s a committed pragmatist who lacks pragmatism’s trump card: experience.
Hollande’s background is not what you would expect of a socialist. He was born in 1954—a year after Ségolène, a year before Sarkozy. Like his future partner, Hollande was raised in a right-wing milieu. His father was a doctor who practiced in Rouen (Normandy), before moving his family to the posh Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine (where Sarkozy later served as mayor). His father favored keeping Algeria French. His mother was a social worker in a factory.
Educationally, Hollande is a pure product of France’s system of grandes écoles, the state-run schools designed to provide the republic with an elite cadre of civil servants. After high school, he was accepted into “Sciences Po,” the top political science school. In 1974, he attended HEC, France’s leading business school, where he honed his expertise in economics (though unlike his contemporary Dominique Strauss-Kahn, he never had formal academic training in the field). Most importantly, he was admitted, in 1978, to the most prestigious grande école of them all, the National Administration School or ENA—the school that recruits a handful of exceptional students each year, inducting them to the upper reaches of French political and economic life. The ENA makes Harvard’s recruiting practices look like open admissions. In 2010, for instance, around 1500 students took exams in the hope of winning one of eighty spots. Each class (or promotion) adopts a name for itself: Hollande’s, which graduated in 1980, dubbed itself the promotion Voltaire. Examining a roster of the graduates gives you a clear sense of how French elites are formed. In addition to Hollande, the “Voltaire” class includes a prime minister (conservative Dominique de Villepin), a finance minster, a culture minister, and a bevy of ambassadors, agency directors, and state company CEOs. It also includes Ségolène Royal: Hollande romanced her when they were collaborating on a social welfare project in Paris’ impoverished immigrant suburbs.
It was while at the grandes écoles that Hollande became politically active. Though he leaned left, he was more involved in student unions than radical groups. Hollande’s political trajectory differs sharply in this respect from many old-school socialists. Traditionally, the PS has recruited heavily from activists who learned politics in trade unions or small leftist parties. For instance, Michel Rocard (born in 1930), the former prime minister, led the tiny Parti socialiste unifié (PSU) for much of the sixties. Jacques Delors (born in 1925), Mitterrand’s finance minister and, later, president of the European Commission, rose to prominence in social Catholic trade-unionism. True, some socialists of the older generation were also énarques (as the ENA’s graduates are known), like Lionel Jospin (born in 1937), the prime minister and two-time presidential candidate. But Jospin was also deeply involved in the underworld of Trotskyist politics. With Hollande, the ENA worldview enters the mainline of socialist politics completely unadulterated. Socialism, for Hollande, is no longer about activism or striving for social change. It is, at best, a system of administration—at worse, a convenient political machine.
Hollande graduated from the ENA (eleventh in his class) in 1980, just in time to join the campaign that made François Mitterrand the first socialist president of the Fifth Republic. In 1981, he went to work at the Elysée palace as an assistant to the economist Jacques Attali. In 1984, he became the chief of staff of Roland Dumas, Mitterrand’s foreign minister and consigliere. While nominally serving, between 1984 and 1988, on the Cour des Comptes, France’s administrative auditing agency, Hollande served as the Elysée’s conduit to “SOS Racisme,” a leading pro-immigrant and anti-National Front movement. Thanks to Mitterrand, Hollande spent his late twenties and early thirties learning how power works at the highest levels.
Meanwhile, Hollande also burnished his reputation within Socialist Party circles. He carved out an identity for himself critiquing the party’s notorious internal caucuses or “courants.” These personality-driven cliques have at times triggered debilitating intra-party warfare (most famously at the party’s 1990 Rennes conference). But, in their own way, they preserved the vibrant ideological controversies that characterized leftist politics of the sixties and seventies—which pitted, say, the neo-Jacobinism of Jean-Pierre Chevènement against the self-management socialism of Michel Rocard. Hollande’s contribution was to form a kind of anti-courant courant—or, as he called it, a “transcourant” movement, which would bypass petty conflicts and promote party unity. The party, he argued, would become more modern as a result. This goal testifies, once again, to Hollande’s desire to emancipate the party from its activist past.
Hollande’s fondness for the corridors of power did not lead him to neglect retail politics. By the late eighties, he decided that the time had come to be elected to parliament. Following a time-honored French tradition, he opted for a “parachutage”—to be “parachuted” into a rural district to which he had no personal connection. The district he chose is indicative of his ambition: he went to the Corrèze, the south-central department that is, notoriously, the political fiefdom of the socialists’ longtime arch-rival, Jacques Chirac. Hollande assiduously cultivated the locals. In 1988, they rewarded him with a seat in the National Assembly (later, he was elected mayor of Tulle, the departmental capital). As a result of their shared corrézien connections, Hollande became one of the socialists who knew Chirac best—which proved particularly useful once the latter was elected president in 1995. Hollande’s biographer writes that he is “doubtless the socialist leader who scorns [Chirac] the least.” Several years ago, a popular YouTube video showed Chirac flirting with a corrézienne while his wife, who sits on the departmental council, was delivering a speech. Seated near the former president is a smiling François Hollande.
The critical moment in Hollande’s career came in 1997. Two years after succeeding Mitterrand, Chirac gambled his parliamentary majority in snap elections—and lost. The socialists won a majority, forcing the president to name his rival, Lionel Jospin, as prime minister. Jospin tapped Hollande to replace him as leader—or “first secretary”—of the Socialist Party. This choice was a mixed blessing: it propelled Hollande to the forefront of the political stage, but, at the same time, highlighted the fact that he had not been named to the government (unlike two of his current socialist rivals: his partner Ségolène, who was named minister of schooling, and Martine Aubry, who was appointed labor minister and de facto vice-prime minister).
Hollande claims that he was closely involved with the decisions of Jospin’s five-year tenure (1997-2002) as prime minister. Jospin in many ways had a productive record, confirming that the socialists, after Mitterrand’s death, could continue to be a governing party. But under Jospin, French socialism underwent a makeover almost as dramatic as those that transformed the British Labor Party and the German Social Democratic Party at the same time—even if Jospin was less inclined to advertize and theorize this shift. Symbolic of this new orientation were Jospin’s comments to striking workers at a factory outside Paris in 2002: when they complained that the government was doing nothing to protect their jobs from being outsourced, the prime minister replied that the state could not nationalize a company each time it laid people off. He also declared: “The state can’t do everything.”
This is the conception of socialism that Hollande has internalized: one that accepts the reality of a globalized, neoliberal order, even as it tries to mitigate its harsher consequences. This is apparent, too, in his endorsement of European integration, which presented Hollande with his greatest political challenge in the wake of Jospin’s ignominious defeat in the 2002 election. Shortly thereafter, French voters were called upon to ratify the European Constitutional Treaty, the awkward name given to a constitution intended to serve as the institutional framework for an expanded European Union. The anti-globalization left, along with the “sovereignist” right, made it clear that they would oppose ratification, on the grounds that it exposed France to socially destructive market forces while chipping away at its national independence. Hollande knew that many socialists sympathized with these concerns. However, the mentorship of Mitterrand as well as Jacques Delors had made Hollande a committed European. In 2004, he organized a consultation of party members to determine the party’s position in the national referendum. Hollande successfully rallied the “yes” forces (i.e., those in favor of ratification), who won the vote. While some defected to the “no” side (notably Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has since abandoned the party and is running in the 2012 election with communist support), Hollande was largely able to ensure socialist unity behind the “yes” campaign in preparation for the May 2005 referendum. He worked closely with President Jacques Chirac, who also favored ratification. But if Hollande won the party, he lost France, which rejected the treaty 55% to 45%.
Hollande is favored to win the October 9 socialist primary, which, given Sarkozy’s dismal poll ratings, will immediately make him the frontrunner in the presidential election. Like many French politicians, Hollande is intelligent and well-educated. But in a time of acute economic anxiety, his lack of government experience will be a considerable liability. More important still, however, is the question of whether he really offers an alternative to Sarkozy. Sociologically, little distinguishes Hollande from his peers on the center-right. He has consistently embraced generic pragmatism over bold ideas. And whatever one thinks of the European Union, his constant support for greater integration identifies him, in the eyes of many, with the groupthink of French elites. François Hollande could well be the second socialist president of the Fifth Republic. But what would this change? Most likely, very little.