François Hollande could still win. And this is why

If the right stays split, the unpopular Monsieur Flanby could walk straight back into the presidency

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

François Hollande appears to have been consigned to the political mortuary. The first Socialist French president since François Mitterrand has been more unpopular than any of his predecessors in office — his approval rating sank to 13 per cent towards the end of last year.

His style of government has been ridiculed. His private life has been the subject of mockery. He is compared to a hapless captain of a pedalo navy or a wobbly French pudding, a Flanby.

But don’t write off Flanby just yet. Thanks to the peculiarity of French presidential elections, he may well win a second term. In order to understand how, it helps to go back to the election of 2002, when the first ballot set up a run-off between the conservative incumbent, Jacques Chirac, and Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front. The Socialist candidate, prime minister Lionel Jospin, had been edged out. It was a seminal moment in French politics. The citizens of the Fifth Republic gritted their teeth and voted for an unloved president just to keep out the far right.

It is increasingly likely that, 15 years later, the same thing will happen in reverse: the incumbent, François Hollande, will win because his opponents are divided and the National Front — although its image has softened and its popularity increased under the leadership of Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine — is still distrusted by the majority.

For all the opprobrium, Hollande has several significant things going for him. The economy remains a huge problem and unemployment is still high, but he has finally pushed through some reform measures that, though timid, are a step in the right direction. He has struck a firm line against Islamic extremists in Africa and the Middle East. And Hollande has been portrayed domestically as the man who prevailed on Berlin to keep Greece in the euro. In truth, Germany took a more commanding position, but the perception goes down well in a country that shivers at the mention of austerity.

This record would not be enough to propel him to a second term on its own. His real hope lies, as Chirac’s did in 2002, in his opponents. Divisiveness in pursuit of personal ambition has distorted French politics since the revolution here. The nadir came in 2002, when the Socialist Jospin faced no fewer than nine rival candidates from the left. Had one or two stepped aside, he would have made it to the second round with a good chance of unseating Chirac.

Five years later, the Socialists were less than united behind their champion, Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s previous partner and mother of his four children. The hard-charging Nicolas Sarkozy won, promising root-and-branch reforms, but by 2012 France had had enough of ‘le petit Nicolas’. Pollsters in Paris advised me not to watch the popularity polls, but the unpopularity numbers for the erratic, domineering ‘President Bling’. If you looked beyond the bluster, Sarkozy was running an economic policy that pushed France deeper into the ditch of uncompetitiveness, high unemployment and social tension. The presidency was there for the Socialists to win and, after Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s imbroglio with a maid in Manhattan, the prize fell into the lap of a long-time backroom operative: Hollande.

Now Sarkozy is the comeback kid. He has formed a new party for himself, Les Républicains. The name’s American connotations have not gone down well with some in France, but the party has even bigger problems: it is sharply divided on personal lines.

Alain Juppé, who was prime minister under Jacques Chirac, is the most popular centre-right presidential candidate, credited with 32–34 per cent support in the polls, but at the new party’s inaugural congress in June he was booed by a section of the Sarkozy faithful. The Républicains are firmly in Sarkozy’s grip but, with 25–28 per cent backing from the electorate at large, he lags Juppé. Sarkozy’s former prime minister, François Fillon, credited with 18 per cent support, could further split the vote.

Hanging over them are polls giving the savvy National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, 29–31 per cent support, which makes it probable that she will repeat her father’s achievement of 2002. That makes the real fight about who will be beside her when the faces of the two top first round contenders come up on the tv screens on election night.

The knives are out on the right. Neither Juppé nor Fillon will make life easy for Sarkozy, while Le Pen can easily mock Sarko’s hard-line policies as ‘National Front Lite’ and urge voters to go for the real thing. But Sarkozy is a political attack-dog who never gives up, and the urbane Juppé has problems that have not shown up so far in the polls. There is his age (he will be 71 in 2017), his conviction in 2004 for abuse of public funds, and the memory of his premiership in the mid-1990s, which earned him widespread unpopularity and led to a major electoral defeat for the centre-right. For his part, Sarkozy is dogged by his disappointing presidency, his ‘bling’ image and charges, which he denies, that he proposed to hand a position in Monaco to a judge in exchange for information about an investigation into alleged illegal campaign funding.

Hollande can safely sit back and leave the right to devour itself in personal battles, abetted by the media. Despite grumbles from the left about his increasingly -market-minded economic policies, the Socialist party will probably remain united behind him. We can discard a poll this month reporting that 37 per cent of respondents think Strauss-Kahn would be a good presidential candidate. The prospect of the former IMF head coming back seems too much even for the French political world.

If Hollande can simply get to the second round, he knows that France will rally to him. In 2002, Chirac received 82 per cent of the vote in the run-off. So don’t write off Monsieur Flanby yet. As Juppé once said, in French politics ‘only physical death counts, otherwise, there is always the possibility of resurrection’.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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Show comments
  • davidofkent

    Francois Hollande came to power by making the same disingenuous claims as did the current Greek governing Party. They all claimed that there was no need to suffer austerity. All that was needed was to vote ‘for us’ and we will end austerity and everything will be all right. This appeal to a suspension of common sense worked on both occasions for just as long as it took for the next disaster to strike, caused as always by this fiction of suspending economic ‘laws’. Hollande said that borrowing more money would do the trick. Syriza said that ‘giving the finger’ to our creditors would do the trick. Now look at them both.

    • Fraser Bailey

      All politicians and parties come to power by making ‘disingenuous claims’. I don’t blame the politicians and the parties. I blame the voters who are stupid or gullible enough to believe them.

  • William

    There are several problems with this article.

    1) Hollande is even more unpopular than Sarkozy. Only 21% of French people want him to stand in 2017, fewer even than the 26% who want Sarkozy to be a candidate.

    2) The Left is even more divided than the Right. Whereas the problems on the Right are largely based on personal ambition, the splits of the Left are due to
    fundamental disagreements on policy. It is wrong to suggest that ‘the Socialist party will probably remain united behind [Hollande]’. In recent months the Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, has been forced to use an article in the constitution which allows a government to pass laws by decree three times, as part of his own party threatened to abstain on the votes on his economic reforms, and the far Left and Right had promised to vote against these measures.

    3) ‘If Hollande can simply get to the second round, he knows that France will rally to him’. This is not so certain. Recent polls have suggested that the FN leader would win a runoff against the current president.

    4) The Right is aware of the problem it faces. A primary is scheduled to be held in
    2016 to choose a candidate of the Right and of the Centre for the 2017
    Presidential elections. This could of course descend into factional rivalry
    that lasts until the election, but there is the possibility that the Mayor of
    Bordeaux, Alain Juppé, might win. Were this to be the case, the main Centrist
    candidate, François Bayrou has said he would not stand in the national
    elections, but would rally behind Juppé.

  • Weygand

    Jospin failed to make the second round because of negligent self-indulgence by the Left, Holland will fail because of principled self-indulgence.
    The Frondeurs, the Aubrys, the Hamons and the Montebourgs are not going to commit the heresy of supporting the Macron-economic policies, which Hollande could not abandon, even if he wished to. The Front de Gauche, various Greens and other fringe leftists will also insist on their first round moment in the sun, especially because supporting Hollande would deprive them of all future credibility with their supporters.
    The Right may well beat itself up in the primaires in 2016 but that still won’t save Hollande.

    • Francisf

      Jospin failed because he lost the TV debate: I remember watching it live, and it was obvious Cheshire Cat Chirac had won. Jospin was sweaty and nervous and panicky: Chirac was cool and calm and confident.
      De la même façon, Ségolène Royal lost to Sarko because she lost her temper in the TV debate, and never really regained her composure.
      What I’ll never understand is how Hollande beat Sarky in 2012: in the closing statements of the TV debate (yep! I watched it live again!), Hollande repeated over and over the phrase “Moi, Président de la République, je…”. It was a quite nauseating example of arrogance and/or attempted mass hypnotism…and it worked! The French must have been holding their noses when they went aux urnes…

      • Weygand

        Surveys have showed that in 2007 in the second round most votes were motivated by the wish to oppose the alternative candidate than to support the one people actually voted for. So you are right about holding their noses.
        I also saw the Hollande/Sarko debate and it was a clincher. For the first (and last) time Hollande looked like a credible leader while (and ever since) Sarko looked like a busted flush.
        A revolution will no doubt follow if either of them is elected in 2017.

  • jim

    Don’t know about this. Hollande is little more than a joke these days.

    • Malcolm Stevas

      It’s certainly the case that no-one I speak to in France respects Hollande or intends to vote for him.

  • greggf

    Well we all want to see the back of Hollande, that’s true. And his allies: Greens, Bayrou, Montebourg etc, have all left since a few market oriented schemes have come in.

    But don’t discount DSK, all the candidates have baggage of some sort. I wouldn’t surprised to see DSK make the list of candidates. And the Left are also “devouring” themselves – it could be a repeat of Britain’s Labour party failure in 2017.

    But what seems certain is, although Marine may not become President this time, her MPs will win many more seats in the national assembly.

  • Peter Stroud

    Does anyone else remember how Miliband praised Hollande?

    • Muttley

      Kiss of Death.

  • Dan O’Connor

    Hollande won the election by a 3 % lead over Sarkozy the mobilized Muslim 3 % block vote.
    That Muslim block vote must have increased due to mass immigration and demographics since then.
    One can find a video on youtube where Sarkozy is telling the native French people that if they don’t start mixed race shagging with immigrants , that the French establishment may be forced to introduce measures to cattle prod the native French into doing so.
    A few weeks later he was giving a speech to some Saudi big knobs and vowing that he has no interest in undermining their culture in anyway.

    • greggf

      Not quite all Dan. Just before the second round in 2012 some negotiations stalled between Sarko about a FN Ministerial appointment in a Sarkozy Presidency. Sarko was blamed and, recently, claims to have learned. But at the time word went out to the FN to abstain….letting in Flanby François…!
      As a matter of fact many Moslem and Jewish voters also vote FN, they prefer the secular state rather than the cant of religious leaders – like Catholics.

  • sidor

    It is absolutely irrelevant who will be the president there. The country is controlled by the immensely powerful French bureaucracy. The elections are run for public entertainment: the ruling elite divides itself into “left” and “right” and organise a spectacle.

  • huw

    interesting piece, their system is weird, this run off nonsense kept Mugabe in power,,,,,,anyway I think marine le pen will win. hollande is re-defining uselessness

    • Mary Ann

      Le Pen would be awful, what France doesn’t need is more racial hatred.

  • sfin

    Two major problems with this article:

    François Hollande is not just just disliked – he is not respected – crucial difference to the French psyche. He was photographed going to trysts with his mistress on a scooter! (for God’s sake!). The French can forgive the likes of Mitterrand because he wined and dined his mistress in Barbizon (one of the most expensive places on the planet) – thus, at least he had style, class, panache…

    Sarkozy modelled himself on Blair and, unlike the British, it would seem, the French recognise a shyster when they see one.

  • John Steadman

    Of course Hollande could pull it off again – who knows. But I think the writer underestimates the extent of Hollande’s unpopularity and underestimates the strides that the FN have made under Madame Le Pen. Throughout the present Socialist reign the Right has been continual high-profil turmoil (to the extent that it has opted for a name change from UMP to Les Republicaines), and if Sarkozy is to lead the charge it will be more of a disadvantage than a benefit that he has already served at the Elysée. If the second round is between Hollande and Le Pen, I would not be counting out the latter at this stage. But, yes, it has to recognised that when the chips are down, the likelihood is that the Stop FN call might well again prevail.

    • Fraser Bailey

      Yes, it will certainly be much, much closer this time.

  • thomasaikenhead

    Sarkozy is widely loathed but the is no reason the French will not vote for Le Pen?

  • WarriorPrincess111111

    François Hollande could still win – by fiddling the lottery results??

  • Lindabmunoz

    ^^^^^Now Get It -ssppeectator

  • Caractacus

    When Sarkozy was Mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, the “Human Bomb”, wearing a dynamite vest and carrying a rifle, held up a nursery and took the kids hostage. Sarkozy went in alone, spoke face to face with the gunman and walked out each time with kids. He did this seven times! The gunman was eventually shot and killed in order to rescue the final six kids and their teacher.

    Say what you like about Sarkozy. The man has guts and is a hero (as was the class teacher Laurence Dreyfus) which puts him over and above any other politician in France and most throughout the world.

  • WarriorPrincess111111

    Hollande will be voted in again – he is a friend of Merkel’s (aka the EU) so even if every French person voted against him – he would still get in.