Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Mystery President: Francois Hollande, Who Promised to Rule from the Left, Was the Most Unpopular French Leader in Modern Times-Until His Fortunes Were Revived by the Murderous Attack on Charlie Hebdo

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Mystery President: Francois Hollande, Who Promised to Rule from the Left, Was the Most Unpopular French Leader in Modern Times-Until His Fortunes Were Revived by the Murderous Attack on Charlie Hebdo

Article excerpt

On a late February night in Brussels, Francois Hollande was bleary-eyed after two days without sleep, but also jubilant. He'd spent 16 hours overnight in Minsk, Belarus, with Angela Merkel, extracting a Ukraine ceasefire from Vladimir Putin. From there he'd gone straight to a summit of EU leaders. Aides advised rest but the French president was determined to chat about the other triumph of the day: the sale of 24 Dassault Rafale jets to Egypt, the first export deal for the French fighter after 20 years of vain effort.

"India has confirmed the order--er, I mean Egypt," Hollande said. "I could have said Qatar, given the confusion of being so tired." With a characteristic giggle he stumbled on. "We've worked out payment that is within the means of Greece ... er, Egypt. I think I'd better stop or we won't know who's bought what."

Long-winded and self-mocking, the performance was pure Hollande. A back-room politician for most of his career, he has always enjoyed schmoozing with journalists. In Brussels he often rambles on after other leaders have left and the staff start turning out the lights. But on that February night, there was a touch of something else. Hollande was exuding a new self-assurance and was obviously enjoying himself. His first two and a half years of fumbled administration had felt like a succession of disasters, from rising unemployment to character assassination by Valerie Trierweiler, the betrayed former first lady. But in January, events had offered a reprieve.

After the Kouachi brothers committed their slaughter at the offices of Charlie Hebdo on the morning of 7 January, the most unpopular French leader in modern times had come into his own. Alerted by a friend's text message from the scene, the unloved Socialist had ignored his security men and rushed from the Elysee Palace to the blood-spattered offices of the satirical magazine while the bodies were still on the floor. Rallying the nation in the days that followed, Hollande struck the right tone of solemnity and empathy. Leading the march of a million people through Paris on it January, he inspired a sense of communion around the republic's values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

The plump little 60-year-old who had won election as "Monsieur Normal" no longer seemed such a lightweight. He had finally assumed the stature expected of France's monarchical presidents. "Francois Hollande has suddenly come together," the veteran commentator Alain Duhamel wrote in Liberation. "For the first time, he embodied the nation and made us proud." he Figaro, Hollande's chief media adversary, voiced its admiration. "He has become audible again when most of the French had given up on him," it said.

At every opportunity since then Hollande has been invoking the "spirit of 11 January". But the "Charlie effect" has faded and France has fallen back into la morosite that has coloured the national mood for two decades. Hollande's Parti Socialiste (PS) has returned to feuding. His approval ratings have fallen again after the January spike. He lost 6 points from mid-January, dropping to 26 per cent on 20 February, against a record low of 16 per cent in November, according to Odoxa polling. Meanwhile Marine Le Pen's Front National (FN) made a strong showing in the first round of national county council elections that end on 29 March. The FN secured 25 per cent of the vote, beaten into second place only by the centre-right alliance led by Nicolas Sarkozy's Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP).

Yet Hollande is sure that he has changed the way people look at him and is convinced he has transformed his presidency. Friends from his days at the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (Ena), the finishing school of the governing elite, are unsurprised. "You wouldn't think it, but Francois has always had an absolute belief in his destiny and it has remained unshaken despite the battering of the past two years," a classmate from his 1980 year group at Ena told me after she visited him in December. …

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