Masses of people thronged Place de la Bastille — symbolically representative of the French revolution — to cheer the electoral victory May 6 of French Socialist Party candidate François Hollande, over conservative incumbent President of the Republic Nicholas Sarkozy.
The joyful celebratory mood was a welcome change. Over a decade of grim employment news had brought a measure of despondency to the nation once noted for its “joie de vivre.” On the campaign trail, Hollande was called the only happy person in a morose country.
In his election campaign, Hollande pledged to be a “normal” president. By promising to fulfill the role chief of state with dignity, and eschew partisanship, Hollande implicitly asked the electorate to compare him favourably to the outgoing hyperactive Sarkozy, whose presidency was marked by displays of personal excess, and his dissing of political opponents.
More importantly, the Socialist party candidate challenged the dominant European austerity insanity. Hollande rightly named “financial interests” to be the main adversary for the French Socialist Party. Setting policies according to bond market expectations, as is being urged on governments everywhere, means buying the proposition that reducing wages reduces unemployment, even though economic science asserts the contrary. Macroeconomics teaches lowering wages reduces employment, because it reduces incomes, and therefore overall spending.
Austerity throws people out of work. Yet financial interests want to see minimum wages cut, unemployment benefits limited, retirement made more difficult and public sector layoffs — measures that reduce incomes — all in the name of deficit reduction, when the reality is these measures are slowing European economies, making deficits — and human lives — worse.
Hollande wants to put economic expansion on the European agenda. As voters across Europe reject incumbents, he is likely to be heard in other capitals.
On election night, Hollande said he had two priorities: justice and youth. Treating people fairly means more than ending privileges enjoyed by the wealthy. It also means dealing justly with illegal immigrants. Hollande has promised to bring back retirement at age 60, lopping off the two additional years added by his conservative opponent, and introduce a 75 per cent tax bracket on high incomes.
Youth unemployment is a pressing issue everywhere, and Hollande will be held to a high standard by his youthful followers on his promise to reduce it. Meanwhile, the North American and conservative European press assume “markets” will bring the Socialist president to his senses, should he decide not to conform to orthodoxy.
Tempered by knowledge about what matters to the voting public, Hollande should be able to carry out his pledge to boost domestic demand, incomes and employment, but should not expect great results. Specific programs targeting youth employment can be expected to produce outcomes commensurate with the amount invested.
Few expect President Hollande or his moderate centrist party to tackle the structural problems created by the economic dominance of financial capitalism, and raised effectively by the campaign of Jean-Luc Mélanchon and his Front de Gauche. François Mitterrand, the previous French Socialist president, acted to nationalize investment banks after his election in 1981, an action that was later reversed.
Financial capitalism is not popular in France, but it remains powerful, and its role is well understood, thanks in part to the great French social scientist Fernand Braudel, who wrote a marvellous three-volume account of the historical development of capitalism. Braudel identifies capitalist finance as the motor driving change, creating instability and organizing society.
Even though (unlike Canada) sophisticated analysis of the short-comings of financial capitalism is widely available in France, the Hollande presidency is expected to dwell more on the humanist tradition of French socialism associated with Jean Jaures than it is on transforming banking and finance. Hollande campaigned on bringing troops home from Afghanistan, renewing education, securing rights and representing people in distress. Those who want him to reflect the more militant bread, peace and liberty socialism of Léon Blum, the 1930s-era Socialist leader, and create a great left coalition will be disappointed.
Hollande is president today because he won the primary election contest organized by the French Socialist Party. The race featured a novel voting scheme bringing together party with non-party members who pledged to support socialist ideals, and paid a modest one Euro fee in order to cast a ballot. Though few gave the nondescript party functionary a chance at the outset (the infamous DSK was expected to win until he shamed himself out of the race) Hollande demonstrated what was needed to achieve success in modern politics.
Working as press secretary to Lionel Jospin, Hollande cultivated media skills and maintained impressive journalistic contacts. Named prime minister, Jospin asked Hollande to become First Secretary of the Party, a post Jospin himself had held when Mitterand was president, where Hollande built up a personal network that would help him in winning the primary vote.
Educated at the top French institutions, while still in his 20s Hollande was brought to the Elysée by Jacques Attali, economic adviser to President Francois Mitterand. So, working out of the presidential palace will seem like a homecoming to the new President.
The Corrèze region elected François Hollande a village mayor, Deputy of the National Assembly and regional chair. Hollande was dispatched South to this unglamorous area by François Mitterand to do battle with the Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac, a prime minister and eventually president of France, who let it slip that on May 6 it was Hollande and not Sarkozy (a one-time protegé who turned against him) that had his vote.
Like Chirac, Hollande is likeable, and approachable. His sunny approach appealed to a French public buffeted by economic crisis. His skills will be tested soon, and often. Whatever happens to his presidency, no one who saw it will soon forget the joy of the Socialist victory party May 6, and what it represents: France rejecting the right.
Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.