To the very end, President Nicolas Sarkozy had sought to make the world believe he could still win and that it would be an extremely tight race. He was wrong. For the second time in the history of the Fifth Republic, the French voted a Socialist Party candidate into the country's highest office. The last time that happened was in 1981, when François Mitterrand became president.
François Hollande's victory is first and foremost a political settling of scores with Sarkozy. When he began his term five years ago, Sarkozy enjoyed a public approval rating of more than 60 percent, but by the end he had become the most unpopular president in the Fifth Republic, which began in 1958 with a constitutional reform that greatly strengthened the role of the president.
Sarkozy's lack of popularity has in large part been the product of the economic crisis that has already cost nine other European leaders their jobs. But the rejection of Sarkozy goes deeper: Many French feel that Sarkozy profaned the office, that he did not bring sufficient dignity, that he was a parvenu who often confused himself with the state and acted like a modern-day Napoleon. In the end, even in the conservative camp, there were many who outright loathed him. Hollande, in short, was propelled into the top office on the strength of the French desire to be rid of the incumbent. Sarkozy and the French -- a jilted love that ended in hate.
After having such an abnormal president, the French are now yearning for a more normal one -- and that is precisely what Hollande promises. Not long ago, no one would have entrusted the office to Hollande. He was considered little more than a joker. Left-wing populist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon even disparaged him as a "pedal-boat captain" to general amusement. After all, he was only the Socialists' second choice, picked after former favorite Dominique Strauss-Kahn fell from grace in the wake of his sex scandals.
But in the course of this election campaign, Hollande succeeded in convincing a majority of French that he had the right stuff to be president. He slowly developed a presidential aura and, in speeches, he placed himself in the same category as François Mitterrand. And finally, in last week's debate against Sarkozy, he crowned himself, starting 16 straight sentences with "I, as president...."
Even Sarkozy's close friend and advisor Alain Minc recently admitted to Reuters: "I think we all underestimated this guy. He's shown quite an uncommon strength of spirit this year. The François Hollande we are seeing today is different from the one we all knew. We took him for something other than he is. Either we were wrong or he has changed." For his part, Sarkozy underestimated Hollande right up to the very end.
During the campaign, Hollande very clearly positioned himself to the left. He pledged he would apply a 75 percent tax rate to any earnings over €1 million. He said he would also change France's retirement age from 62 back to 60. And he promised an end to European austerity policies -- positioning himself as the antithesis of Angela Merkel and telling his backers: "I don't want a Europe of austerity, where nations are forced to their knees."
Hollande Will Bitterly Disappoint Voters
Still, it is highly unlikely that Hollande will turn out to be a spendaholic socialist president. And he will bitterly disappoint many of his supporters as a result. Hollande will be the president of an economically ailing country. Public debt amounts to 90 percent of GDP, France hasn't had a balanced budget since 1974 and, at almost 57 percent, it has the highest ratio of government expenditures to gross national product of any of the 17 euro-zone countries. What's more, unemployment stands at roughly 10 percent, and there is an entire generation of children of migrants that has grown up in ghetto-like suburbs and hardly has any contact with the labor market. During the campaign season, these problems only played a secondary role. But, for the newly elected president, they will assume a central one.
The major question is whether Hollande can muster the power he will need to profoundly reform France. At the most basic level, he is a pragmatist and, speaking off the record, many of his colleagues have even described him as a "social democrat." He has also repeatedly pledged to usher in a balanced budget and will be measured according to how well he sticks to his word.
There will be a major celebration on the Place de la Bastille on Sunday evening. But on Monday, all of France will wake up with a hangover. Hard times are in store for the president and the country. During his campaign, Hollande repeatedly evoked France's greatness. But this greatness is now threatened by precisely the economic weakness that Hollande must tackle. He cannot carry on France's tradition of incurring more and more debt, and he won't be able to transform his country without alienating many of the people who have just voted for him. Indeed, Hollande has won the presidency, but his new job is one of the toughest ones in the world.
A Better Merkel Partner and Uniter?
Despite his at times aggressive campaign rhetoric, one shouldn't expect Hollande to become Europe's greatest antipode to Merkel. He will no doubt champion French positions vigorously with the added legitimacy the election results have provided him. But many political observers believe that Hollande's stance on the euro, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the financial pact will be similar to the one that Sarkozy pursued.
Indeed, even late last year, some of Sarkozy's senior advisors were taking positions that could easily have come from Hollande's campaign platform. There was opposition to a strategy focused exclusively on austerity and many were in favor of direct ECB intervention. As such, where as the face might be different, the French position likely won't be radically changed.
It is even possible that Merkel and Hollande will be able to forge a strong personal bond -- and one even better than the one once shared by Merkel and Sarkozy. In a certain sense, one could perhaps even describe Hollande as a French Merkel: He is a pragmatist rather than an ideologist. He aims for consensus and considers results more important than grandstanding. He is a down-to-earth and empathetic guy. And, as an economist who once taught at the elite Sciences Po university, he also shares Merkel's scientific background.
Hollande will be able to make use of his agreeable manner in his new office. This French election season has revealed a country that is mired in self-doubt and extremely anxious about the future. It is also a country that is deeply divided into various camps and with swelling numbers of the disappointed and frustrated. As president, Hollande must unite these camps. In the turbulent times his country faces, he must be a father figure who can bring together both the left and the right.
A Triumphant Left, a Fractured Right
For the left, Hollande's election victory is a triumph. It has been 10 years since it was part of government and 17 years since it held the presidency. If the left secures a majority in next month's parliamentary election, it will return to power after a long dry spell. Hollande has liberated the left from the fear of failure that has plagued it since Lionel Jospin failed to even make it to the run-off election in the 2002 presidential race after polls had predicted he would go all the way. Still, it remains to be seen how successful the Socialists will be in power.
The right-wing camp, on the other hand, has been left in shambles by Sarkozy's defeat. By taking an unprecedentedly hard stance toward immigrants and Islam, his campaign ultimately transformed his conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party into an almost mirror image of Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front. At the end of the campaign, UMP Defense Minister Gérard Longuet even made a Freudian slip when he said "We from the National Front …" in a radio interview before correcting himself quickly -- but not quickly enough.
The right-wing camp is now threatened with breaking apart into a conservative-liberal faction, which was upset by Sarkozy's campaign tactics, and a faction on the right that could even join forces with the National Front. This has been the great dream of Marine Le Pen, who has already declared herself the "leader of the opposition." But, for a freshly minted President François Hollande, it would be a nightmare.