Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty Images
France's opposition Socialist Party candidate for the 2012 presidential election Francois Hollande waves on Nov. 4, 2011 in Brive-la-Gaillarde, southwestern France.
France's opposition Socialist Party candidate for the 2012 presidential election Francois Hollande waves on Nov. 4, 2011 in Brive-la-Gaillarde, southwestern France. Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty Images
Eric Pape is a writer in Paris.
Based on the headlines, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has had a pretty good few months. He spearheaded the ultimately successful international effort to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi, recovering from a flat-footed early response to the Arab Spring. He has been on the barricades pushing for an aggressive response to save the eurozone from debt turmoil. Even his personal life is on the upswing: His wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, gave birth to a baby girl, Giulia, on Oct. 19, guaranteeing endless humanizing press coverage six months before the presidential election.
Unfortunately, nobody seems to have told French voters, who continue to heavily favor Sarkozy's Socialist challenger, Francois Hollande. The distinction between the two seems to have more to do with style than politics. Hollande has long been known as the Disappearing Man of French politics, best known for fading into the background in support of more dynamic and exciting candidates. Up against the omnipresent, attention-hogging Sarkozy, this has become a serious advantage. If Hollande can make the election into a referendum on the current leader, a sort of Sarkozy-vs.-Sarkozy campaign, the incumbent will join the ranks of France's unemployed.
Like many incumbents these days, Sarkozy is stunningly unpopular — nearly two voters in three disapprove of him, and those numbers have hardly budged in the last 18 months. Leading in a time of enduring economic crisis that has undermined many policy ambitions doesn't help. But his presidential style is also to blame. Throughout the first four years of his term, Sarkozy's constant media presence tended to highlight that he was the center of France's political universe rather than his efforts to solve the nation's problems.
Beyond that, Sarkozy has failed to offer a coherent and convincing vision of where he is taking France. His communications team has, in recent months, gone to great effort to repaint him in more traditionally presidential colors, limiting his media appearances and highlighting his now extensive political experience.
But the self-effacing, low-key Hollande could be the perfect candidate to quietly lead his party to victory. The 57-year-old center-leftist demonstrates little of the flamboyance, flair, and grandiosity that have characterized recent French presidents. Whereas Sarkozy savored his 2007 presidential election by driving up the Champs-Elysees escorted by flashy police motorcycle outriders and later recovered from the campaign on the Mediterranean-moored yacht of a billionaire industrialist, Hollande recently won the Socialist candidacy after campaigning via motor scooter.
If ever there were a moment for a "normal president," which is what Hollande promises, it is following Sarkozy's difficult term. The incumbent initiated the "bling-bling" presidency with nouveau riche penchants — aviator sunglasses, expensive gaudy watches, adulation of rich friends, and his very public courtship of supermodel turned pop singer Carla Bruni. Hollande's Mr. Normal shtick is an implicit slap at Sarkozy's neurotic personality, his desecration of the near-royal French presidency, and his micromanaging style that goes against the traditionally above-it-all head of state's role.
Read more at Foreign Policy.