One of his cabinet colleagues once dubbed him ‘Flamby’, after a French brand of wobbly custard pudding. A member of his own campaign team called him a ‘marshmallow’. Even the mother of his four children, the 2007 presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, said he had ‘achieved nothing’ in 30 years of public life.
But François Hollande is President of the Republic and they are not. So is he a ‘dangerous man’, as the right-wing British magazine The Economist claims, or just ‘the captain of pedalo in a storm’, as the far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon quipped during the 2012 campaign? Dunno. The only thing I can say with certainty after 500-odd pages of Serge Raffy’s Le President is: don’t underestimate François Hollande.
Hollande combines undoubted ambition with a kind of patient fatalism and the tenacity of a dog with a marrow-filled bone. When he was 15, ‘with neither arrogance nor megalomania’, he calmly told a friends’ father: ‘I will be President of the Republic’. At the 1981 elections, heeding François Mitterrand’s advice to establish himself a political base in the provinces, he turned up in Corrèze, an unpromising rural area in central France, to challenge none other than Jacques Chirac in his own backyard. Mocked by Chirac as ‘less well-known than Mitterrand’s labrador’, Hollande failed to make the second round.
It took him seven years to get elected to anything in the département. Most other ambitious politicos would have bagged the experience and moved on, but Hollande stuck to his self-appointed task. Corrèze is now Hollande’s backyard and one of the most secure political bastions in France. Even Chirac votes for Hollande now.
‘One only emerges from ambiguity to one’s detriment,’ Mitterrand is supposed to have been fond of saying, and this is another piece of the old man’s advice that Hollande seems to have taken to heart. Throughout his career, Hollande has seemed reluctant to emerge from the shadows of his political father figures. A man who had an atrocious relationship with his own father – a fascist sympathiser – he moved between the grands hommes of the French left like an itinerant stepson, always looking up to, but ending up slightly disappointed by, his chosen mentor.
As well as Mitterrand himself, there was Jacques Delors, who let Hollande down by chickening out of running for the presidency in 1995 (as he’d ducked out of facing Chirac in Corrèze in 1981, allowing Hollande to step in at the last minute), and the donnish Lionel Jospin, with whom his relationship deteriorated so badly the two men almost came to blows during Jospin’s disastrous 2002 campaign (yes, it’s hard to imagine two more unlikely protagonists in a fist-fight). Another political hero (interestingly shared with Chirac) is Henri Queuille: a Corrèze politician of vaguely leftist convictions who, despite being prime minister of France three times in the 1950s, and a minister seventeen times in all, has left scarcely a mark on the public consciousness, even in France itself.
But Hollande’s choice of political mentors tells us a lot: these are not the romantic figures of the French left, they are not firebrands or ideologues. They are all machine politicians, skilful operators who travelled light ideologically and knew how to bide their time. Politicians, in fact, a bit like François Hollande.
With France now firmly in the eurozone pressure cooker and his popularity dropping like a stone, we will soon find out if Hollande is indeed a ‘Flamby’ or a political jammy dodger like Mitterrand himself.