By Mathieu von Rohr in Paris
François Hollande has been speaking for two hours and 37 minutes, from his place at the podium in the grand ballroom of the Elysée Palace. It is mid-November, and this is the French president's first press conference since taking office. He hasn't yet even broken a sweat.
The whole thing is like something out of a play: The newly elected king stands in his palace addressing his people, backed by heavy red curtains, with golden chandeliers and tapestries above his head. To his right, the government's 39 ministers sit silently; in front of him are 400 journalists. It's a peculiar ritual, and one that is broadcast on French TV in its entirety.
Hollande evokes the economic situation in France in a dramatic tone and reports a laundry list of measures he is either considering or has already implemented. Then he answers the journalists' questions, all delivered in a deferential tone and some of them equally as flowery as the president's answers. At one point Hollande says, "And now I will answer another question no one has asked." He's allowed to do that.
This is a fascinating moment for two reasons. For one thing, it shows how France's presidential democracy works. Hollande's press conference is not really a press conference, but rather a symbolic performance that demonstrates the president's authority.
In this moment, everything else disappears: The media's dogged attacks, the accusations that the president has been idle in the face of the financial crisis and his administration "amateurish." Even recent polls, in which two-thirds of the French population described themselves as dissatisfied, seem far away.
For another thing, this moment says a great deal about François Hollande, a man who, every time you think you've understood him, reveals another side of himself.
There are many different images of François Hollande and many of them contradict each other. There's the pudgy jokester who headed France's Socialist Party, then the slimmed-down candidate who transformed himself over the course of his election campaign from a bore to a fiery speaker.
Hollande outdid Nicolas Sarkozy in aggressiveness and eloquence during the presidential debate, yet he also spent his first months in office seemingly paralyzed, stuck somewhere in between his party's different ideological factions. He's also the man who came off as an passive bystander in the jealous drama that played out very publicly between his current partner and his former one, Valérie Trierweiler and Ségolène Royal.
There's the Hollande whose aides describe him as a pragmatic Social Democrat, and there's also the man who not only promoted Socialist pet issues like reducing the retirement age for some French workers back down to 60 and increasing taxes on income above 1 million ($1.3 million) to 75 percent, but also quickly implemented those promises once he was in office.
There are many Hollandes and it isn't easy to know which one of them will govern France in the coming years. And although the French have been familiar with the man for decades, many find themselves wondering who exactly they have elected: A reformer? A traditional Socialist? Or someone who will do nothing but hesitate?
The biggest question of all is: Who is François Hollande?
Even those who have known him the longest find it hard to answer this question. One of Hollande's oldest friends, Bernard Poignant, who is mayor of Quimper, says, "I feel the same way about him, he has this mysterious side. He's always been that way." Hollande's domestic partner, Valérie Trierweiler, told author Laurent Binet during the election campaign, "Even I don't know."
The one thing all his friends can agree on is that Hollande is a man who has been underestimated throughout his life.
He was a faithful Socialist Party member for decades, without ever managing to reach the party's upper echelons or serve as a member of the government. Fellow party members mocked him with names such as "Flanby" -- a type of pudding -- and "Marshmallow" and "Strawberry."
His bid for his party's candidacy garnered him the additional nickname "Monsieur trois pour cent" -- no one believed he could win. When his party did indeed select him as its presidential candidate, the mockery began again, as Hollande spent the first weeks of his candidacy driving around the country, clumsy and aimless.
But this man with something of the accountant in him changed over the course of his campaign. He began as someone inconspicuous and sometimes inept, but by the end there was a presidential air about him. Over the months leading up to the election, Hollande gained presidential stature, took to styling himself the successor to François Mitterrand -- and landed himself an electoral victory.
Sarkozy's advisor Alain Minc said shortly before the election, "We all underestimated this guy. Either we were mistaken, or he's truly changed."
A Reckoning with Sarkozy
Hollande's win was, of course, a reckoning with Nicolas Sarkozy, who managed to make himself the Fifth Republic's most unpopular president during his own term in office. Hollande's voting in was also Sarkozy's voting out, with the country electing Hollande by a narrow margin in large part because he seemed to better fit the image of a dignified ruler than the hyperactive Napoleon that Sarkozy had been -- and not because Hollande presented a particularly credible economic program.
What stood out about Hollande as a candidate was his faculty for empathy. On the campaign trail, he showed a keen understanding of what people wanted to hear. Addressing factory workers about to be laid off in the northern French city of Montataire, Hollande declared, "I'm here. But coming here is easy. The important thing is to come back!" The men with the skeptical expressions nodded.
Just a few hours later, sitting at a café in Amiens with a group of French high school and university students who had the big questions of their futures on their minds, the presidential candidate told them he knew that at their age, what they wanted was to get their own lives off the ground. "You want autonomy. I understand," he said, and the young voters nodded.
This ability to always say the right thing at the right moment was a characteristic of Hollande's during his 11 years as head of the Socialist Party as well, when he was known as the "man of synthesis." When Hollande met with representatives of the party's notoriously divisive factions, he allowed them all to express their opinions, then concluded the meeting with a few summarizing sentences that reflected the beliefs of everyone present, but without giving away his own position on the issues.
A Country in Need of Restructuring
This led some to believe Hollande would be a president always searching for compromise. It was just as possible, though, that he would be the type of president more likely to mediate between others' positions than to present a position of his own -- a dangerous thing at a time when the country needs change and strong leadership.
Unemployment in France is over 10 percent, national debt is 90 percent of gross domestic product, the economy is barely growing and public spending is at 57 percent of GDP. This is very much a country in need of restructuring.
During his presidential campaign, Hollande often made it sound as if he could reform the country effortlessly, talking vaguely of "recovery" rather than of the painful measures that would be necessary to achieve it. Many of his campaign promises gave the impression that there was money available, just waiting to be given out.
Here, perhaps, lies the greatest dilemma of Hollande's presidency: He was elected as a leader who must inevitably disappoint his country, breaking promises and forcing France to face tough conditions. But doing so is not in his nature. Hollande wants to be liked. The fact that he doesn't like telling people things they don't want to hear is one of his most obvious traits.
As a result, the first thing Hollande did at the beginning of his term was nothing at all.
Hollande Views Germany's Merkel as Ideological OpponentDuring those first months, it sometimes seemed as if Hollande hadn't realized yet that he was now holding power, as if he still saw himself as the party leader who had to mediate between his party's various factions and make each group feel its opinions were important. He conveyed the image of a president who had a hard time explaining what he planned to do about the financial crisis and who seemed to have an even harder time actually taking action on the issue.
Only at the European level has Hollande taken an active role, seeking out confrontation from the very start with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom he sees as an ideological opponent and whose austerity policies he views as a grave mistake. Hollande considers counterbalancing "austerity in Europe" an important task. Unlike Merkel, he believes it to be impossible to create growth this way. Battling the German chancellor seems to be something he enjoys, and it also appears to be a battle he truly believes in.
In France, though, instead of taking immediate action, he commissioned a number of reports, including one from Louis Gallois, former head of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), on how to "improve competitiveness." And while hesitating to make deep cuts to France's bloated state sector, Hollande's government increased taxes on businesses and private households by a whopping 20 billion, taking them right up to the pain threshold.
When it emerged in October that the recommendation in Gallois' report on competitiveness was to relieve employers of 40 billion worth of contributions to social spending, the Socialist Party's left wing was quick to announce its opposition to the plan. Socialist politicians and advisors made their voices heard in the country's newspapers, expressing their belief that France's economic woes could be solved through the traditional Keynesian theory of pumping more money into the economy. The president and his administration were then quick to distance themselves from the report they themselves had commissioned, and which had not yet even been published.
Open Spirit or Lack of Direction?
This struggle surrounding Gallois' report is typical of the those that seem to occur constantly around Hollande.
The French president surrounds himself with members of the classical Left, for example his minister for "Industrial Recovery," populist Arnaud Montebourg. When Montebourg heard French carmaker PSA had decided to close its Peugeot factory outside Paris, the minister reacted with a rant against the company and a demand for the government to intervene.
On the other side of the equation, one of the president's closest advisors is former Rothschild banker Emmanuel Macron, who is reported to have responded to Hollande's budget law imposing a 75 percent tax on the country's highest earners with a memo that read, "That's like Cuba but without the sun."
It's impossible to predict which of these people Hollande will listen to, or when and why. The president doesn't want to pin himself down to a single course of action, which can be interpreted either as a sign of his open spirit -- or a lack of direction. Nobody knows whether Hollande has firm convictions of his own.
All this made Hollande's press conference in mid-November, held half a year into his term in office, particularly important. The president needed to show who's the boss, and he needed to illuminate the way ahead. As if intended as deliberately ironic commentary, the evening before the press conference a jury of French journalists awarded Hollande a "Prize for Niceness in Politics."
'Decline Need Not Be Our Fate'
Yet as he has so often done after being written off, the next day Hollande pulls off a masterful performance. Standing in the ballroom of the Elysée Palace, he points out again and again that he is the president -- not that there could be any doubt, given the regal setting. This is a format that would be unthinkable in almost any other Western democracy: an hours-long television production.
Hollande presents the situation in France more candidly than he has ever done before. He speaks in a grave tone, his gaze serious. He says, "Decline need not be our fate!"
And immediately some French commentators, seized by exuberance, compare this day to another seminal political moment: the West German Social Democratic Party's convention in Bad Godesberg in 1959, at which Germany's left first accepted the idea of a market economy. This seems like an overblown conclusion from this press conference, where Hollande surprisingly uses the phrase "social democracy," once, generally a banned term among France's Left. But it is indeed the first time Hollande has given something that could be described as a "blood, sweat and tears" speech.
Hollande likes being president -- that's easy to see as he addresses the room -- just as he liked being a candidate. He enjoys exercising the powers of his office, especially in front of an audience. And once the serious, initial portion of the event is over, he displays a cheerfulness and a playfulness with words that seem almost too lighthearted for the seriousness of the situation. The constant smile that he restrains only with difficulty is simply part of Hollande.
But this press conference described as a "turning point" in Hollande's presidency does not feature an all-new Hollande, it features the same hard to read man. Although he sounds very much the centrist, in the next breath he is referring to the classical left-wing economic policy that says demand must be stimulated. And in the end it even remains unclear whether France will truly comply in 2013 with the Maastricht criteria, which stipulate a maximum of 3 percent new indebtedness.
On this day, Hollande has clad himself in regal robes in front of an entire nation, and that is the impression he wanted to give: the president who seems able to rise above party affiliation, a man who has recognized the seriousness of the situation. The coming years will show whether he is up to the task of handling that situation. The crisis will show who François Hollande really is.
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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