Plus Ça Change…

Hollande

On May 6, 2012, Françoise Hollande won a landslide victory in the French Presidential elections. Here's how that victory was reported in the (left-leaning) UK Guardian:

(UK GUARDIAN, MAY 6, 2012): François Hollande has won power in France, turning the tide on a rightwards and xenophobic lurch in European politics and vowing to transform Europe's handling of the economic crisis by fighting back against German-led austerity measures.

The 57-year-old rural MP and self-styled Mr Normal, a moderate social democrat from the centre of the Socialist party, is France's first leftwing president in almost 20 years. Projections from early counts, released by French TV, put his score at 51.9%.

His emphatic victory is a boost to the left in a continent that has gradually swung rightwards since the economic crisis broke four years ago.

The man Hollande defeated was Nicholas Sarkozy, leader of the right wing UMP party who had been in office for just one term (though that term - unfortunately for Sarkozy - just happened to coincide with the 2008 Global Financial Crisis).

However, Sarkozy's unseating was conclusive:

Nicolas Sarkozy, defeated after one term in office, became the 11th European leader to lose power since the economic crisis in 2008.

He conceded defeat at a gathering of his party activists at the Mutualité in central Paris, urging them from the stage to stop booing Hollande. "I carry all the responsibility for this defeat," he said.

In the wake of his defeat, Sarkozy, now no longer in office, couldn't help but make one more pledge to the French people (old habits die hard, it seems):

[Sarkozy] said that after 35 years in politics and 10 years at the top of government, he would now become a simple "Frenchman among the French".

Hollande swept into power on a wave of euphoria, promising all kinds of handouts to the French people - handouts which France couldn't afford to actually hand out, frankly, but when did THAT little inconvenience ever stop a politician from making a promise?

Fast forward precisely ten months to March 2013 and I think it's fair to say that the bloom was off the rose:

(UK Daily Telegraph): Some 67 per cent of [French] people now disapprove of [Hollande's] attempts at running the country, less than a year into his five-year term, according to a new poll. The score is 10 per cent worse than last month, according to Opionionway polling institute. 

Only three in 10 now think the Socialist is doing a good job, down eight points, while two thirds believe “things are not changing” for the better...

"Ten months after an election in a first term, this (level of unpopularity) is a record for a French president," said Bruno Jeanbar of Opinionway.

Sarkozy

At the time of his defeat in 2012, the standing in which Sarkozy was held by the French public was, like the man himself, diminutive:

(UK Guardian, May 6 2012): The defeat of the most unpopular French president ever to run for re-election was not simply the result of the global financial crisis or eurozone debt turmoil. It was also down to the intense public dislike of the man viewed by many as the "president of the rich" who had swept to victory in 2007 with a huge mandate to change France. The majority of French people felt he had failed to deliver on his promises, and he was criticised for his ostentatious display of wealth, favouring the rich and leaving behind over 2.8 million unemployed. Political analysts said anti-Sarkozy sentiment had become a cultural phenomenon in France.

Now, however, after three years of Hollande's disastrous reign as French President, the people have been given a chance to voice their displeasure at his poor performance at the helm of Europe's second-biggest economy and, who should they turn to, but that 'simple Frenchman amongst the French' himself, Nicholas Sarkozy who, of course, couldn't stay away from politics:

(UK Guardian): The resounding election success by the traditional right UMP and its centrist allies catapulted Sarkozy back into the limelight after what was seen as his lacklustre return to politics in September. His party has been beset by debt, allegations of financial scandals and bitter in-fighting in recent months, but its score turned its fortunes around. Sarkozy described his party’s high score as historic and a mark of France’s “massive rejection” of the politics of his successor, Hollande.

Sarkozy’s campaign speeches have been sharply rightwing and openly negative towards the Muslim community to win over votes from the far-right – for example in his argument that school canteens should not offer alternative pork-free menus to children, or that the Muslim headscarf, or hijab, should be banned from universities. 

This has irritated some in his own party. But Sarkozy is likely to hail the UMP’s electoral gains as a personal victory for himself and a vindication of his veer to the right. The decisive win for the UMP will comfort his personal ambitions to win the party’s primary contest next year and run for president again in 2017.

Sarkozy's UMP party was seen as an acceptable alternative (for now) to the extreme right-wing Front National, led by Marine Le Pen, who have moved from a protest vote into a viable contender for office thanks to the paucity of the two main parties' leadership.

The 'cultural phenomenon of anti-Sarkozy sentiment' had to be swallowed in pursuit of a protest vote against perhaps the worst President France has had in living memory (and probably beyond).

The situation in France demonstrates, once again, the problem with modern Western democracies where a complete lack of true leadership has led to unpopular incumbents and comebacks by once-vilified ex-presidents across the political landscape.

The tipping point arrives when electorates realise that a vote for either of the two main parties is simply a vote for a horse of a different colour as, no matter which party takes office, the debt dynamics remain constant.

Eventually, impatience and frustration leads to a vote for extremism and that is something simply Europe cannot afford - but also a growing reality it has to face.

Greece's dance back and forth between PASOK and New Democracy (each of which was more hopeless than the other in successive terms of office) eventually resulted in the election of The Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) and we all know how well THAT little exercise in freedom of expression is working out.

Meanwhile, through it all, the cost to whoever inhabits the Élysée Palace of borrowing money from international bond markets is at a 700-year low (sorry, the chart 'only' goes back a couple of hundred years) and its yield curve is negative out to four years.

Despite appearances, France is a timebomb at the heart of Europe and, if reality were to reimpose itself upon markets, all hell would be let loose. However, for now, none of that matters.

Plus ça change...

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