Monday, October 20, 2014

The Après-Hollande Has Begun

The presidency of the Fifth Republic was conceived by its founder, Charles de Gaulle, on the model of the Jansenist Dieu caché, whose center is supposed to be everywhere and circumference nowhere (Pascal). François Hollande promised a different sort of presidency: he aspired, he said, to be un président normal. Undoubtedly he meant to contrast his ideal of the presidency with that of Nicolas Sarkozy (who had no center but whose circumference was ubiquitous) rather than that of de Gaulle. If so, he mistook his own intention, because Sarkozy, too, sought to be un président normal in the sense of a partisan political leader rather than an aloof arbiter standing above the partisan fray and governing sub specie aeternitatis.

Fate has not been kind to the normal presidency, however. Hollande's motorcades soon ceased to stop at traffic lights, for security reasons. He began to fly the presidential jet rather than take trains. He was photographed on the back of a motorscooter on his way to a tryst with an actress. His budget minister and trade minister resigned in the wake of scandal. The "normality" of Hollande's presidency came to mean simply this: that he was no more exemplary, modest, or disciplined than his predecessor. Alas.

And then he vanished. The nomination of Manuel Valls as prime minister placed a more dynamic and compelling figure at center stage. The subsequent appointment of Emmanuel Macron gave a new face to the "social-liberal/neoliberal turn" that Hollande had previously tried to sell under the "social-democratic" banner. This weekend, Hollande's old nemesis Martine Aubry emerged from obscurity to mount an all-out attack on the direction of Hollande's presidency, only to have the riposte come from Valls, as if the president himself were no longer a figure of sufficient consequence to parry the blow.

Hollande has the worst of both worlds. He bears full responsibility for the neoliberal turn of French socialism. Even though the prime minister has fully embraced the policy, he offers the president no protection. The prime minister as bouclier or lightning-rod--the Gaullist model of politics--is a model unsuited to the age of TV and Internet, in which the president becomes the embodied form of policy, the incarnation. Yet there is something oddly ectoplasmic about Hollande, which renders him unfit for the role of incarnation.

Nor can he retreat into the traditional chasse gardée of the presidency, foreign policy. Where he has intervened successfully--Mali, Central Africa--his successes are diminished by the global insignificance of the crises that led to his involvement. By contrast, where the action rises to global significance--Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine--his role is overshadowed by the American presence (or, in Ukraine, the German presence).

So the post-Hollande era has begun. Montebourg's candidacy is all but underway. Aubry has not broken her silence for nothing. Macron, already a media darling on the strength of all of three weeks of gaffe-marred ministerial experience, is openly being touted as a future prime minister under President Valls (an unlikely prospect, to be sure, but journalists must write about something). Ségolène Royal is giving away free weekend rides on the autoroutes in the hope of kindling a little presidential heat ("Why not make pastries free on Sundays?" quipped the UMP's Christian Jacob, who needs to resurrect himself now that his former savior Jean-François Copé has self-immolated).

One can almost feel sorry for François Hollande, left alone in his palace without companion or mistress, ignored by his countrymen, neglected by his peers, spurned by the press, upstaged by Merkel and Renzi, too colorless to attract even cartoonists and caricaturists, a man whose flaws are too trivial to rise to the level of the tragic, pitiable in his normality.