Most long-term political leaders spend their lives striving and scheming to get the top job only to turn grey, haggard and miserable within about five minutes of taking power. There is, then, something to be admired in outgoing French President, Nicholas Sarkozy, for always having the decency to look as chuffed as a dog with two dicks whilst living his dream of being president of his country and sleeping with Carla Bruni.
Unfortunately for Sarkozy, looking permanently pleased with himself has turned out to be an inadequate qualification for re-election when set against his other faults. His hyperactive child-like inability to concentrate has played a part in his failure to enact much of the reforming agenda on which he was first elected. As a consequence, his record on the economy is poor. Sarkozy has also persistently and repulsively flirted with racism in a failed attempt to attract the admirers of National Front leader Marine Le Pen’s fascism in a fancy frock routine.
But perhaps most damagingly of all for his re-election campaign, Sarkozy became the personification of “bling” in a country that identifies itself with social justice, at a time of growing resentment about wide income disparities.
Sarkozy’s image was so unattractive to a majority of French voters that it enabled his main opponent, Francois Hollande, to win merely by looking like an old-fashioned provincial bank manager and campaigning under the deliberately underwhelming slogan of “Normal”. Hollande’s persona has rendered ridiculous the lame attempts of right-wing commentators (last week’s editorial was a rare comedy classic from the “Economist”) to portray him as the revolutionary heir to Robespierre. Madame Bruni can probably rest easy in her silk sheets without worrying about being wheelbarrowed to the guillotine whilst shouting “let them eat cake” anytime soon.
Sarkozy’s image was so unattractive to a majority of French voters that it enabled his main opponent, Francois Hollande, to win merely by looking like an old-fashioned provincial bank manager
There will, though, be changes in France, and possibly beyond, as a result of Hollande’s election. He is in many respects a traditional social-democrat who believes in the virtues of economic growth and social solidarity that served Western Europe so well during the “golden age” of the decades after World War II. Hollande has made clear that he opposes the grotesque income divisions that have become a phenomenon of recent times and austerity at all costs as a solution to Europe’s economic problems. Indeed, the most significant impact of Hollande’s election, when combined with the election outcome in Greece and the fall of the Dutch government, may be to signal an end to the failed policy of austerity and a greater emphasis on economic growth and averting social chaos.
Indeed, if Hollande can garner enough support from other leaders for his ideas, then his election may come to be seen as a turning point in recent European affairs. Like all previous ideologies that seemed to have inevitability on their side, the extreme form of free-market capitalism that has dominated recent decades may not be as impregnable as it seems. One big lesson of history is that dominant systems that seem like they can never change, one day usually do.
Certainly, the current recipe of pursuing ever harsher versions of the same system that caused the global economic crisis in the first place seems woefully unlikely to provide a solution. Europe is increasingly crying out for a different approach. And the unlikely figure of Francois Hollande might just be the man to provide it.
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