The main challenger to President Nicolas Sarkozy in the hard-fought French election contest that culminates in a few weeks is a man virtually unknown outside his own country – François Hollande. To the surprise of many people outside of France, the polling data has consistently shown the incumbent trailing his opponent, including in the widely expected situation in which election turns on a run-off between the two men. Long-time stalwart and one-time leader of the Socialist party, Hollande, 57, has had little international exposure during his decades as a French parliamentarian. So who is he? And if he is elected President, what is likely to change in U.S.-French relations or in France’s position inside the European Union?
Suspense is quietly acute about these questions in Washington, particularly so after five years of an exceptionally high American comfort level with Paris during Sarkozy’s years as head of state. His potential successor, Hollande, is largely an unknown quantity to U.S. policymakers. Symptomatically, Hollande has not paid a get-acquainted visit to the Obama administration ahead of the French election. The contrast could not be sharper with Sarkozy’s hot-and-heavy courtship of the U.S. when he was a candidate in the 2007 elections in France. A high-profile visit to Washington during the campaign was part of Sarkozy’s strategy of distancing himself from outgoing President Jacques Chirac -- a fellow conservative (whom Sarkozy had served as a cabinet minister), but who had broken bitterly with America over the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The trip was meant to signal that this bilateral rift would end with Sarkozy’s election, and during his visit the candidate went on the record with statements signaling a clear break with previous French foreign policy -- particularly in the Middle East, where Sarkozy promised closer French alignment with Israel and tighter cooperation with the Bush administration against the Iranian threat.
The White House made no secret of its support for Sarkozy (against his Socialist Ségolène Royal), and the Sarkozy team was eager for their man to get a photo-op with President George W. Bush. They got it when -- by “coincidence”, as these things often happen, “W” chose to drop by the office of National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley when Sarkozy was there for a scheduled meeting. The resulting news photo of the two men shaking hands anointed the French candidate as “American Sarko.”
No such showmanship has been exhibited by François Hollande. His popularity in France can be partly credited to his down-to-earth image, including his determination not to follow Sarkozy into seeking the limelight with show business and financial celebrities. It is hard to imagine a greater contrast in personality than that between Sarkozy’s flamboyance and the bland, almost phlegmatic political style of Hollande.
To emphasize the difference, the Hollande team even abandoned a planned Washington visit last December. That trip was cancelled after the G-20 summit meeting hosted by France in Cannes, where Barack Obama was unstinting in the praise he publicly showered on “Nicholas” and his “extraordinary leadership.” Hollande felt that he would come off a poor second-best in any immediate comparison, according to one of his confidants, so he decided to postpone getting acquainted with the Obama team and with key European leaders “until afterwards” -- meaning when and if he becomes President. Pierre Moscovici, a former junior minister for European affairs, who handles foreign policy for the Socialist candidate, also postponed a planned visit to Washington, explaining that he was too busy because he was assuming new duties as Hollande’s overall campaign manager.
Ultimately, this lack of communication with a possible newcomer at the head of the French state began to worry the Obama administration. The French election comes just ahead of several summit meetings in May (the G-8 in Camp David followed by NATO in Chicago) whose dynamics could be affected by the presence of a new leader of France. So an invitation to visit Washington for consultations went out to Jean-Yves Le Drian, who handles security issues on Hollande’s campaign team. The diplomatic calendar is very tight after the French election. A vote on April 22 election will probably lead to a run-off on May 6 and a new president – meaning Hollande if he wins -- can only assume the office, under the French constitution, on May 17. In that eventuality, it will be a scramble for him to get a flight in time to reach the Camp David meeting – especially since he has announced that his first official visit will be to Berlin to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel (even though she publicly cold-shouldered him during the campaign, apparently to preserve the image of close cooperation with Sarkozy). In Washington, Le Drian had meetings with Pentagon officials and at the State Department with Assistant Secretary for Europe Philip Gordon and Ambassador Marc Grossman, the special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In his campaign, Hollande has portrayed himself as a “normal” French leader (in contrast with Sarkozy’s aspiration of creating a “breakaway” from the mold of his predecessors). That “return to normal” will likely be the framework of Hollande’s attitude toward the U.S. if he becomes president. Friends say that he does not share Sarkozy’s special affection, even “fascination,” with the U.S. (On his first official visit to Washington, Sarkozy recalled that growing up in a largely anti-American atmosphere in France during the Vietnam war, he had loved a pop song “If the GI’s Hadn’t Come” that was a paean of thanks to Americans for liberating France from the Nazis in World War II.) Hollande seems equally immune to the “anti-imperialism” rhetoric that has often fed anti-Americanism among sectors of the French left. In 1996, he was a Young Leader selected by the French-American Foundation. In early March this year, one of his friends, Jean-Pierre Bel, the newly elected President of the French Senate on a Washington visit, reassured the U.S. Congress about the implications of “a Socialist” in the Elysée Palace, which is France’s White House. He reminded Americans that François Mitterrand, a Socialist President, had been a staunch U.S. ally in the 1983 crisis over medium-range nuclear missiles stationed in Europe. And, he added, Hollande is a close friend of Jacques Delors, one of France’s most prominent supporters of closer EU integration. In reassuring his American counterparts in Congress, French Senate head Bel said that Hollande has no intention of upsetting the “apple cart” on transatlantic issues.
But there are some warning signs of change for Washington about a Hollande presidency. A changeover at the top of French politics, after a five-year period of exceptional mutual appreciation between Paris and Washington, would require some readjustments on the American side if it finds itself compelled to get back to dealing with U.S-French relations on the basis of the old “normal” being offered by Hollande.
His electoral platform contains several points liable to worry the Obama administration, especially on two major questions at the core of transatlantic relations: the euro crisis and Afghanistan. (Both are also likely to figure in the American election campaign during the next six months.)
On Europe. Hollande wants to renegotiate the terms of the European Fiscal Stability Treaty signed in December by 25 of the 27 EU member states. The Socialist candidate says that the pact needs to be expanded beyond fiscal discipline and debt ceilings to include provisions about promoting economic growth. On this point, he echoes elements of the Obama administration’s view in insisting that that fiscal discipline must be accompanied by at least some measure of stimulus and investment. Otherwise, austerity measures alone will stifle growth and cause a downward economic spiral that deepens the economic crisis. Hollande has pledged to balance France’s national budget by 2017 (thus complying with the eurozone’s new “golden rule” of balanced national budgets), but he has also said that he wants to see changes in the mandate of the European Central Bank – presumably to enable it to go beyond curbing inflation and include fighting unemployment.
What form would a treaty “renegotiation” take? Hollande has talked about rewriting “some clauses” of the text. In Brussels, EU officials would prefer to see a treaty “addendum “ in the form of a separate statement or an additional “protocol” on growth that could be adopted without impeding the ratification process of the treaty itself.
On Afghanistan. Hollande plans to withdraw French combat troops this year – two years earlier than the calendar announced by NATO. Le Drian was pressed on this point by U.S. officials during his Washington talks, and explained in an interview with Le Monde that ”we have always said that our withdrawal from Afghanistan would be carried out in coordination with our allies and that we would not ask other countries to follow our timing.” His spokesperson has said that, Hollande, if elected, will inform NATO about the new French withdrawal schedule at the alliance’s summit meeting in Chicago.
On NATO. Hollande says that he intends to “evaluate” the outcome of France’s 2009 return to full integration in the alliance’s military command structure. He has no intention of going back on France’s decision, but does want a cost-benefit analysis of the current situation for French interests. “If that turns out to be negative, then we need to have a new discussion about the division of labor among the allies and about France’s role in the alliance’s decision-making process,” a close aide told the left-leaning magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur. “We might want to insist on the creation of a ‘European headquarters’ within NATO to handle operations in which the Americans are not involved.” French Socialist leaders feel that NATO has not fully lived up to its promises to Sarkozy about the conditions of France’s return -- such as key slots for French commanders, full French independence in alliance decision-making and a stronger place for “European defense” inside NATO.
On other pending transatlantic issues, according to Le Drian, it would be premature for candidate Hollande to take a position now on the planned U.S.-led anti-missile shield in Europe. France has agreed to limited participation in the program, but Hollande has said that it needs to be reviewed because it raises complex financial and technical issues and also has ramifications for France’s military doctrine of relying on its independent nuclear deterrent.
Corine Lesnes is the Washington-based correspondent of Le Monde newspaper.