Francois Hollande is the president-elect of France. On Sunday evening after the polls closed he addressed a crowd in his home constituency of Tulle before heading off for the Parti Socialiste victory bash in the Place de la Bastille in Paris – the traditional rallying point of the left. In Tulle he declared to his jubilant audience: “I am the president of the youth of France. You are a movement that is rising up throughout Europe.”
It will come as a reassurance to those of us who are ‘long in the tooth’, or a “vieille personne” in French argot, that Hollande is fast approaching 60 and is balding. He is also intent on restoring the retirement age to 60 years for some – outgoing centre right presidents perhaps. So for all of us who are young at heart in the progressive left in Europe we can clamber aboard the renewed sense of hope that Hollande has brought to the young, the middle-aged and the old alike in his native France.
On Sunday in the second round of the French Presidential election Francois Hollande became the socialist party’s first president since 1995, when another Francois, Mitterrand, stood down after serving two terms. Hollande secured victory with just under 51.63 per cent of the vote (roughly the same as Mitterrand) leaving his centre right rival Nicolas Sarkozy as the first president not to secure a second term since 1981.
In Paris on Sunday night was Pierre Kanuty of the Parti Socialiste’s Europe and International Department. His verdict: “It was the day we made history!”
After a long night of celebrations Pierre told me: “Sunday was an important election day in many ways all over Europe. The Labour did very well in UK’s local elections, the SPD as well in Schleswig-Holstein. In Greece, the defeat of PASOK was predictable but the serious threat of extreme right shows the reality of a danger we have experienced here in France. The campaign in France was not just a domestic political event. It was observed and monitored abroad and we were aware of that.”
The progressive socialist movement throughout Europe had been pinning its hopes on a Hollande victory. Pierre confided: “The support, the messages and the help we’ve got from our comrades was not just symbolic. It gave us faith, strength and it helped us having constantly in mind how important it was for social-democracy and Europe.”
So why did Sarkozy fail to win a second term? Pierre is in no doubt: “Because the hyper-president never understood he’s been too far in his hustle. The TV debate between him and François Hollande showed clearly two styles, two ways to do politics. The conservative candidate was acting as if reality was on his side but he never faced the contradiction between being a super president, like the heroes you see in blockbusters and a real impotent man blaming the crisis for his failure. The most symbolic argument was that in 2007, shortly before he took office, he had promised to reduce the unemployment rate to five per cent. Five years later it is around 10 per cent: it was not halved, it was doubled.”
Pierre continued: “Sarkozy never acted as somebody who embodied France as a whole. His nickname was the ‘President of the Riches’ and during the campaign he moved to the right. Some of his supporters even talked about alliances with the Front National of Marine Le Pen. He kept talking about immigration as invasion, Muslims as the symbol of all immigrants coming to our country and changing our ‘way of life’.”
The voting on Sunday saw the Parti Socialiste triumph in historically conservative places. For the first time the PS was ahead in both Paris and its region. The overwhelming rejection was perhaps the reason that Sarkozy conceded defeat just half an hour after the polling stations closed.
François Hollande will officially take over as president on May 15. The immediate battle for the Parti Socialiste is not over: in June it faces all important parliamentary elections. The challenge says Pierre “is to win a socialist majority in order to be safe from a green-red pressure” from Sarkozy’s defeated Union for a Popular Movement and the far right threat of the Front National.
For Hollande the challenges are just starting: meanwhile his party is launched once more into a vital election battle.
(The above article was published in the London Progressive Journal on May 9 2012).