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François Hollande's excellent start in the French election

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Photo: Benjamin Géminel/François Hollande's photostream on Flickr

A party apparatchik, who spent most of his career toiling in obscurity, building his party. A tool of the labour movement and other suspect players who, some argue, must not be allowed near the public purse. A not-entirely-successful dieter and exerciser, as of yet. An instinctive consensus-builder and team-leader, who drew criticism for being too quick to compromise to keep his party united in its darkest moments. A relative unknown who sounds like his predecessor, who he served as a senior adviser.

All of these things have been said about French Socialist Party presidential candidate François Hollande. Which makes him my kind of guy. But notwithstanding all of this (be they flaws or points in favour, depending on your point of view), Hollande has taken a major step toward unseating his populist/conservative rival, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Hollande beat Sarkozy in the first round of the French presidential election Sunday, 28.6 per cent to 27.1 per cent according to the BBC. That makes Sarkozy the Fifth Republic's first sitting president to have failed to poll first when running for re-election.

Hollande and Sarkozy will now duke it one-on-one in a second round, including in a critical nationally televised debate. Anything can still happen. National Front candidate Marine Le Pen did surprisingly strongly in the first round and farther left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon performed less well than expected. It remains to be seen what this means for the second round, which the Socialists have lost after winning first ones before.

But still, Hollande has done very well indeed. His campaign therefore merits careful study. In these times, any social democrat who succeeds in making good progress ridding the world of yet another populist/conservative government merits our respectful attention.

So what did Hollande do?

First, Hollande campaigned on a relatively gutsy platform. It offers a fairly clear choice, within the mainstream of a western industrial democracy, with some impressively clear commitments.

For example, much media coverage has focused on Hollande's proposal to restore fair taxes on high incomes. The details are less important than the victory Hollande scored in how this proposal was debated. It was widely discussed in terms of whether or not to dispense with cadeaux fiscales -- fiscal gifts, to the wealthiest of the French -- rather than the populist right-wing "smaller government, lower taxes, more freedom" slogans that have delivered none of these things, while building grotesque income inequality here in North America. In short, Hollande found a way to win both the frame and the debate over economic equality.

There is a lot more to like about Hollande's platform. He lays out a detailed job creation program, a commitment to better regulate France's poorly-supervised banks, and a more balanced approach to trade. He commits to a stronger public pension plan. He promises to end further privatization of hospitals, and to promote better access to health care. He proposes a 20-to-1 cap on the salaries of CEOs in publicly-owned corporations. He makes an unambiguous commitment to withdraw all French troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012. Clear, focused, unambiguous commitments, that seem to be working for him.

Second, Hollande got lucky.

Politics run on unpredictable clock-spins -- economic, political, social, and cultural gears that intersect in different ways at different times. Sometimes they align to the benefit of incumbent governments, as they did in Canada in the spring of 2011. And sometimes not, as in much of Europe at the moment. The European Union is struggling with the consequences of its half-formed currency, over-dependence on bankers and bond dealers to fund public services, and failed experiments with what people on that side of the ocean call "liberalism" (of the 19th century variety).

A good time to be in opposition, going into an election.

Third, Hollande converted his opponent's principal strengths into his principal weaknesses.

Like right-wing populists around the world, President Sarkozy succeeded, for a time, in distracting voters from the core of his economic and social agenda by playing up populist tropes -- the police baton for the unruly teenagers in France's hopeless high-rise suburban ghettos; tough laws to order millions of muslim citizens to become more French; well-crafted insults to persuade the French to enjoy life less and to work harder for less income; and a promise of new energy and new vitality, delivered by a new president with all the push and swagger of the nouveaux riche.

So far, Hollande has succeeded in turning both Sarkozy's populism and his style into liabilities. The French seem to be tired of their president's hyper-activity, histrionics and poshness. They may be about to conclude they want a more normal president, who will do what he can to create employment, improve services, make things more fair, and better align what France does overseas with the views of its citizens at home. We'll see if this carries Hollande into the Élysée Palace on May 6. What we can say today is that he is off to an excellent start.

* * * * * * * * * *

I've been away from this column in recent months, busy with a run for the leadership of my own party. I didn't win. But I had a lot of fun, made it to the last ballot, learned a lot, and met an awful lot of nice people. Whatever else we can say about conservatives, the founding one (John A. Macdonald) imagined a remarkable country -- an inheritance that all of us in all of Canada's parties and political traditions do well to carry forward. That we are all in our own ways trying to make a wonderful country better is, if you will, an underlying point of unity between all of the partisan political voices you get to read here on the Second Reading blog.

Many thanks to readers who wrote in recent months to encourage me and to offer me your views and your advice. Please stay in touch. I'm also grateful to my ever-patient editors at the Globe and Mail for inviting me to resume these notes.

Brian Topp is a past president and leadership candidate for the New Democratic Party of Canada. He served a stint as national campaign director with NDP leader Jack Layton, and was a senior official in the government of Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow. He was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec. This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

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