Hollande Torpedoes Candidacy, Socialists Seek Replacement

A book release squanders what little goodwill the French president had left in his own Socialist Party.

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras speaks with French president François Hollande in Paris, April 13
Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras speaks with French president François Hollande in Paris, April 13 (Elysée)

French president François Hollande has exhausted what little goodwill he had left in his party by airing his views of other top officials.

There was never any doubt that Hollande — the least popular president in French postwar history — would lose his reelection bid next year. But the Socialist Party was willing to follow him into defeat, owing to the absence of an uncontroversial successor and a political culture of deference.

That has changed since the release of Un président ne devrait pas dire ça… (“A President Should Not Say That…”) earlier this month.

Confessions

In the 600-page book, Hollande confesses his opinions of other Socialist Party bigwigs to reporters from the newspaper Le Monde.

The president laments that Jean-Marc Ayrault carries out his duties as foreign minister “without excessive enthusiasm.” He says the National Assembly speaker, Claude Bartolone, lacks “charisma” and doesn’t “have what it takes” to become prime minister, a position he lobbied for. He calls Manuel Valls, the current prime minister, “brutal”.

The book apparently wasn’t meant to be published before the 2017 elections. Its release, and Hollande’s unfiltered opinions, have dumbfounded the French political establishment.

Ayrault quipped that the book’s title summed up his take on it. Bartolone publicly wondered if Hollande still has the will to be president. Valls reportedly got into a heated exchange with Hollande at an Elysée dinner recently, where he called the book “unacceptable”.

Voters are no less baffled. The latest Ipsos survey puts Hollande’s approval rating at 4 percent. (That’s not a typo.)

Hopeless

This summer, I argued that the Socialist primary might be a blessing in disguise for Hollande. Should he have seen off challengers from the left and the right of the party, it could have united the Socialists and perhaps limited their losses in the election.

That ship has sailed. The question now is: who instead will accept the hopeless mission of leading the party into the abyss?

Predictions are grim. Polls suggest whoever the Socialists nominate will be beaten into third place by the right’s Alain Juppé and the far right’s Marine Le Pen, with the former almost certain to prevail in the runoff.

But that scenario is based on two assumptions: that Hollande would be the Socialist Party candidate and that Juppé will defeat the former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, in the Republican primary.

Should Sarkozy unexpectedly triumph, there may be an opening for a center-left presidential candidate like Valls or Emmanuel Macron, the reformist former economy minister. Both are social democrats with national and international appeal. Either man would be an improvement over the often indecisive Hollande, who is likely to leave the economy in much the same state he found it when he came to power in 2012.