Once the Socialists have finished fêting their first presidential victory since Mitterrand’s re-election in 1988, the big questions will need to be asked. What will be the repercussions of Hollande’s victory for the future of France? Here, I address five key themes: the contrast between the outgoing and incoming French leaders; the key figures in Hollande’s presidency; the key domestic and foreign policy implications of a Socialist victory; the implications for the forthcoming legislative elections; and the repercussions for Sarkozy’s UMP party.
In terms of presidential style, Hollande is quite the contrast to Sarkozy. Whereas Sarkozy celebrated his victory in 2007 by dining in one of Paris’s most exclusive restaurants and then partying on a yacht for several days (earning him a reputation for vulgarity and being the “President of the rich” that still caused him headaches in 2012 and was a factor in his defeat), Hollande will be eager to show a more modest, “normal” reaction. While Socialists might pop a few champagne corks, Hollande has already indicated that he intends to start work from the very outset, with a phonecall to Angela Merkel planned the same night as the result is declared. Henceforth, we can expect Hollande to be calm, conciliatory, focused on the job, and eager to avoid the flashy displays that came to haunt his predecessor.
One aspect of his private life that is likely to garner continued interest is his partner, Valerie Trierweiler. Will he marry her? I expect not. Whereas once this might have raised a few eyebrows, cohabitation (of the non-political kind) is now very commonplace in France, and reflects Hollande’s persona as a modern president, one of the people. Foreign dignitaries may feel less pleased at entertaining a First Lady who is not the spouse of the president (as we witnessed in the brief period when Carla Bruni was merely Sarkozy’s companion), but Trierweiler may well eschew such a role anyway. She has indicated her desire to continue working as a journalist. Formerly a political journalist for Paris Match, she has switched to the Arts beat to avoid a perceived conflict of interest, but her chosen profession is still likely to sit uneasily with her unofficial role as the partner of the president.
Aside Trierweiler, the more interesting political companion for Hollande will be his choice of Prime Minister. Martine Aubry, Socialist party leader, has indicated that she will not take the job if offered. A more likely candidate whose name has been doing the rounds is Jean-Marc Ayrault. He is a loyalist rather than an “elephant” (ie a Socialist party heavyweight), and this is what Hollande needs. No president likes to be upstaged by the prime minister, and needs someone who is willing to comply with the president’s vision.
It will be interesting to see how Hollande forms his first cabinet. Those who have played a prominent role in the campaign are most likely to be rewarded. Whether he will bring in players from other parties will depend in part on negotiations surrounding the legislative elections. One likely appointment is his former partner and defeated 2007 candidate, Ségolène Royale, to the position of Speaker (president) in parliament. She has been publicly supportive of his campaign, with the bitterness of their separation now well and truly buried (at least in public), and she is likely to be an important ally in the years ahead.
Moving onto policy repercussions, Hollande’s room for manoeuvre will obviously be linked to the outcome of the legislative elections in June (more on that below). His economic policies are predicated on a push for growth rather than austerity, with promises to raise taxes for the rich and invest in more teachers to revive France’s ailing school system. France has a comparatively high level of state spending and growth forecasts are currently considered to be optimistic, so Hollande’s hopes to balance tax and spend measures with deficit reduction appear somewhat naïve. He has also threatened to force European partners to renegotiate austerity plans, with more emphasis on growth at the European as well as domestic level. It was no secret that Merkel had supported Sarkozy’s re-election campaign, and both she and David Cameron will need to find ways to work collaboratively with a leader from the other side of the political fence. However, diplomacy dictates that all leaders will find a way to work together, and sometimes surprisingly strong collaborations can be forged across party lines (witness Blair and Bush).
The legislative elections will be the first big test of Hollande’s presidency. The UMP has been more popular than Sarkozy, so it is not inconceivable that they will make something of a comeback in June, especially given the surprisingly narrow defeat of Sarkozy against all the odds. It is also unlikely that the Socialists can obtain a parliamentary majority by themselves, and will depend on the support of other left-wing and green parties in order to command a working majority in parliament (as has always been the case). The last “plural left” coalition, from 1997-2002, became increasingly fragile towards the end and finished in acrimony. Ten years out of power will have encouraged the various partners to find new ways of working together.
If the left does win – and they will certainly do much better than in 2007 – we can expect a significant rise in the number of women in the National Assembly. I anticipate that the total number of women deputies will exceed the 30% mark, compared to the current level of 18.5%. We can also hope to see more women in high profile positions within the government.
One of the factors complicating the legislative elections will be the reinforced Front National. They traditionally do less well in parliamentary elections than in the presidential race, not least due to the less favourable electoral system. But if they manage to qualify to the second round in a large number of seats, they could be a real nuisance for the UMP. Will the UMP be tempted to make an electoral pact with the FN to avoid too many “triangulaires” where the right-wing and far-right candidates cancel each other out and result in a victory for the left? The UMP have previously ruled out an alliance with the FN, but following the fall of Sarkozy, they are working from a clean slate. If they abandon the cordon sanitaire and sign a devil’s pact, this might invite a rupture within the party between those willing to make a permanent shift to the right, and those who cannot stomach the FN. If they do not form an alliance, their electoral prospects may be damaged. Despite their nuisance factor, the FN are not likely to make significant gains in the National Assembly (where they have not had any deputies for some time), but it is possible that Marine le Pen might win in her constituency.
Finally, what prospects for the UMP? Sarkozy has confirmed his exit from political life, leaving a leadership vacuum that was widely anticipated. The campaign for his succession began long before the campaign for the presidency ended. Frontrunners are Jean-François Copé (outgoing president of the UMP within the French parliament), and François Fillon (outgoing prime minister). Other key figures have already started lining themselves up in one of the two camps. Their biggest challenge will be to find a unity figure who can steer the party through the legislative elections, and avoid the bloodbath of a leadership contest until after the elections.
One thing is clear: this is a decisive moment in French politics. Change really is on the horizon. The next few weeks shall be very interesting indeed.