Understanding Francois Hollande’s Victory

Following Francois Hollande’s victory yesterday in the second round of the presidential election, the French presidency has shifted left for the first time in 17 years. Many commentators and analysts see Hollande’s victory primarily as Sarkozy’s defeat. This is the first time since Valery Giscard d’Estaing in 1981 that an incumbent loses his bid for a second term.

Hollande’s victory speaks to the French “ras-le-bol” with spending cuts and austerity policies – both at the national and the EU level – though it is worth noting that, although of singular importance, economic considerations were not the only issues that drove the French vote. Some suggest that Hollande’s victory is mostly due to Sarkozy’s growing unpopularity, that many people who voted for Hollande were in fact voting against Sarkozy.

Sarkozy had been billed as the candidate representing a modernizing, liberalizing force, while Hollande was construed as the “normal” candidate, a man who would not rock the boat on “les acquis sociaux” (French euphemism to describe social welfare benefits accrued by workers since the end of the Second World War) – unlike Sarkozy, who did boldly move to reform the retirement pension regime in France. So, whereas in Anglophone countries it tends to be the case that left-leaning parties are considered to be progressive and modernizing, and right-leaning parties to be reactionnary and pro-status quo, things are not quite so clear in France.

During his victory speech yesterday, Hollande said he asked to be judged on two things: his work on behalf of justice, and on behalf of youth. These are two areas that were quite neglected under Sarkozy, and Hollande’s efforts on those fronts are welcome. While on social issues, the new president seems in tune with French aspirations, economically, his policy views are less popular, both at home and internationally. During his campaign, Hollande famously said he would impose a 75% tax bracket on those earning more than a million euros annually – a nice campaign promise that will be difficult to pass into law, even with a parliamentary majority.

As far as the European Union goes, Hollande has said he believes that austerity is not the only path to restoring European economies and dealing with the debt crisis. While economists – such as Paul Krugman – agree with him on that front, many fear that his plans (or lack thereof) concerning labor market reforms could spell trouble for the country. Since the first round of the election, media across the world have been warning that jittery financial markets and investors would react negatively to Hollande winning the election – a prediction that came true, as markets slumped across the world today (though the results of the election in Greece should also be factored in.) Markets and investors, however, may give Hollande a reprieve. The president-elect has vowed to balance the budget by 2017, which is encouraging news, though given the prevailing economic climate at the national and European level, this may prove difficult to achieve.

The French – and Greek – elections are a powerful reminder of Europeans’ discontent with their leadership. While in the first round this discontent was translated into support for the extreme right and extreme left, Hollande’s victory is a clear mandate to change the course charted by Sarkozy. Latent French xenophobic tendencies were exacerbated under Sarkozy, and divisions between social classes, between the majority and minorities, between ethnicities are sharper than ever. In France, after elections, leaders call for “le rassemblement” – rally. Hollande’s challenge will be to bring people together not just in the aftermath of the election, but to rebuild trust and public confidence. His next big challenge is coming up in June, when French voters go back to the polls for decisive parliamentary elections that will help shape both the government majority and the new opposition.