Hollande rides anti-incumbency wave in France
RENNES THE man polls say has the best shot at becoming France’s next president wants to hire thousands more teachers, renegotiate Europe’s expensive, hard-won bailout package, and re-assess his country’s role in both Afghanistan and NATO.
But Socialist Francois Hollande appeals less for his platform than for his persona: the innocuous, intellectual everyman is many things that conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy is not.
Hollande, 57, is tapping into a French population wary of international finance, weary of Sarkozy’s “bling-bling” personality and eager for change.
While countries in struggling Europe shift to the right, France may hand the presidency to the left for the first time in a generation, with repercussions for the continent’s direction and France’s future.
Part of Hollande’s appeal is his Mr. Nice Guy image, but he still must convince voters that he’s got what it takes to run a complex, nuclear-armed nation and one of the world’s biggest economies.
Hollande isn’t the only leftist making headlines in this campaign: Firebrand far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon has amassed some of the biggest crowds so far at rallies blanketed in red communist flags. Melenchon, with the charisma that the mainstream Hollande lacks, is complicating the political calculus.
French voters kick off the balloting in two weeks, with 10 candidates from across the political spectrum facing off in a first-round vote on April 22 that will winnow the race down to two.
While Hollande has slipped a little in recent weeks, polls have suggested for months that he would win the expected two-man finale against Sarkozy on May 6 by a broad margin.
The economic crisis in Europe has felled many governments in recent years. A Hollande victory could break from a recent rightward trend in the continent, and put France out of step with other big European countries like Germany, Spain, Britain and Poland‚ all run by center-right or conservative leaders. Italy, hobbled by a debt crisis, is led by technocrat Mario Monti.
Some of Hollande’s major proposals could raise eyebrows abroad: As governments enact austerity measures elsewhere in Europe, he wants to hire thousands more teachers. He wants to scrap a European bailout package led by Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
He has pledged to pull all French combat troops out of Afghanistan by year-end, and says that pledge would be the first thing he tells allies at a NATO summit in Chicago in May.
For many in France, the time seems ripe for a return to a Socialist president: the only one in postwar France was Francois Mitterrand, from 1981 to 1995; throw-thebums- out has been an election theme in Europe; Sarkozy, in part for reasons of personal style, has been unpopular for years; and the financial crisis and debt crises in Europe have emboldened the left.
Hollande is seen as more of a consensus manager and a listener than visionary. For much of his tenure as party first secretary from 1997 to 2008, he served mostly as a water carrier for party elders , and only now is coming into his own.
His advisers insist to a foreign reporter that Hollande is no old-school Socialist, but a social democrat wary of the economic challenges coming from 21st-century powers like China and India.
Yet while major parties of the left in Europe reformed and tacked toward the political center in recent years‚ like Gerhard Schroeder’s Socialists in Germany, or Britain’s Labour party under Tony Blair, the Socialists in France eschewed such a move.
And when he speaks to the French faithful, Hollande’s class-warfare style rhetoric, inveighing against the financial world that he calls his “adversary”, and demanding justice for the underclass‚ often draws cheers.
Hollande, who once quipped “I don’t like the rich” on TV, got a recent boost in the polls after he announced a proposal to slap a 75-percent tax on income beyond the first‚ $1.3 million earned each year. Hollande on Wednesday drew thousands who spilled out of two warehouses at a convention center near the city of Rennes, in the heart of the left-leaning region of Brittany. The highlight was Hollande’s appearance alongside Segolene Royal, his longtime partner and mother of his four children.