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Francois Hollande: What became of dull Mr. Normal?

by Kim Willsher

The Observer

A few hours before French President Francois Hollande’s press conference on Jan. 14, the telephone rang. “So, will he resign?” asked an excited colleague on the other end of the phone in London. It was not a joke, but this side of the Channel it seemed a funny question.

What to say?

“Of course he won’t; this is France.”

However indignant Hollande may have been about a glossy celebrity magazine revealing the details of his affair with a French actress — and he said his indignation was “total” — whatever reflections and considerations were going through the presidential gray matter on Tuesday morning, the idea of sitting down and drafting his resignation was almost certainly not among them.

Posing the same question to a French colleague elicited a genuinely perplexed rather than amused response. “Resign? Why would he do that?”

Indeed. A poll for the left-leaning Le Nouvel Observateur on Jan. 10 and 11 at the height of the scandal, found Hollande’s popularity had gone up by 2 percentage points to 26 percent. A separate poll showed 77 percent of French voters considered the affair between Hollande and actress Julie Gayet — it seems almost prissy to write alleged since neither party has denied it — to be a private matter.

At his ill-timed press conference, four days after Closer magazine printed photos of Hollande wearing a helmet on a scooter reportedly riding to meet Gayet, 41, the president was punchy, defiant and, on the political front, supremely professional. His discourse, lasting almost three hours, pulled enough rabbits out of the policy hat, including his self-confessed swerve from socialist to social democrat, to achieve what it was clearly calculated to do: overshadow the scandal and personal ennuis.

Hollande was not going to mention a word about his private life, challenging and forcing journalists to do so, at which point he could take the moral high ground, vent his indignation and refuse to comment.

Had the Elysee’s salles des fetes been packed to the ornate rafters and chandeliers with French media, the sleight of hand might have worked. However, as foreign journalists persisted with personal questions, Hollande revealed he could be emotionally cold to the point of heartlessness. Here was the jovial, genial, funny Monsieur Normal revealing what acquaintances suggested were his true colors. And it was no more Mr. Nice Guy.

His refusal to confirm whether Valerie Trierweiler was still first lady, at the very moment she was confined to hospital apparently suffering from “deep despair” at his betrayal — alleged — seemed impossibly cruel. It harked back to his behavior toward Segolene Royal, mother of his four children, who was understandably hurt in 2010 when, after leaving her for Trierweiler, Hollande declared that his new girlfriend was “the love of my life.”

In a new book just published called “So Far, So Bad,” written well before the Closer farrago, French journalist Cecile Amar, quotes Trierweiler confessing that “Francois has no emotion.” “He likes to compartmentalize his life, keep his secrets. He confides rarely and never pours his heart out,” Amar writes.

Even his close friends admit they do not really know Hollande. “I understand him politically, but the man … I don’t know him,” finance minister Pierre Moscovici, a long-time ally admitted to the author. Agriculture minister Stephane Le Foll, another colleague and friend, added: “He leaves people by the wayside. His considerations are always political … but then nobody can be nice all the time.”

Every year, the elite Ecole nationale d’administration, the hothouse for France’s political and administrative class, turns out a new “promotion” of graduate high-flyers.

The 1980 list of twenty-something enarques of Promotion Voltaire features what are now some dazzling household names in France, among them Segolene Royal, Henri de Castries, CEO of the insurance giant Axa, former foreign minister and prime minister Dominique de Villepin, Francois Hollande …

In those days, few would have put money on Hollande, the son of an ear, nose and throat doctor who once stood for local election on a far-right ticket, being the one to reach the ultimate office of state.

Back then, French presidents were lofty men of providence who, as former French leader Valery Giscard d’Estaing once grandly observed, were “in the line of sovereigns” and expected to be treated like royalty.

Influenced by his left-wing social worker mother, Hollande had gone the opposite political direction to his father and joined the Parti socialiste, but the myopic, weight-conscious civil servant turned politician could not shake off his Milkybar Kid image.

Working his way through the party ranks, he became PS spokesman, a position that made him popular with journalists who appreciated his jokes and witty ripostes (and placed him in Paris Match correspondent Trierweiler’s orbit ) and then general secretary of the party.

If Hollande came across as inoffensive, indecisive and a tad wobbly, hence the Flanby nickname after a blancmange-like dessert, behind the scenes he was working to build a solid power base of popular support among socialist voters across France.

Handing over the PS top job to the leftwing hawk Martine Aubry, daughter of Jacques Delors, in 2008, Hollande took refuge in his central France parliamentary constituency at Tulle in the Correze department. And there Hollande, seemingly stuck in a political broom cupboard, might have remained were it not for two events: Royal’s defeat by Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential election, and the shooting down in flames of the PS’ presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the IMF, whose political career ended with an alleged sexual assault on a maid in a New York hotel room in 2011.

Suddenly “Flanby” revealed an iron core of single-minded ambition. Far from being in the political wilderness since 2008, he had been travelling the country endearing himself to provincial party branches and militants, who ensured his victory in the party’s presidential primaries, despite stiff competition that included Royal and Aubry and two current government ministers.

To win the 2012 presidential election, Hollande fell back on his Mr. Normal trademark, positioning himself in stark relief to the arrogant, bling-bling, brash Sarkozy. He dyed his hair, lost some weight and exchanged the crumpled suits and wonky ties for something more soigne, but still gave the impression of being staid and solid. If the hyperactive Sarkozy looked as if he was going to drop the ball, or lob it through someone’s window in a fit of pique, Hollande, who lacked his rival’s charisma, was a safe pair of hands.

From the moment he got his hands on the keys to the Elysee, however, little seemed to go right for Hollande. Trierweiler tweeted her support for a rival of Royal’s in the legislative election, damaging Hollande’s credibility and robbing him of the vital honeymoon period of public goodwill normally afforded newly elected leaders. As the economic crisis dragged on, it seemed there was little that Hollande could do to bring the required drop in unemployment or a boost to industrial output and growth and the Mr. Normal tag began to prove something of a millstone.

The love affair with Gayet is widely viewed as an unwelcome distraction. It would be wrong to suggest the French are not interested, but they do not much care and it does not much influence their opinion of the man.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the allegations is the question of whether Hollande’s trysts with what one newspaper waggishly called France’s “second lady” have been funded out of the public purse.

There is also concern that Hollande’s conduct — not the affair itself, but the scootering around town for nocturnal meetings with his mistress — have made him, the presidential office and, by extension, France and the French look ridiculous. Sarkozy, who is hovering in the wings threatening a political comeback, said as much last week.

“He’s got himself into a right old pickle,” Sarkozy reportedly told friends. “While everyone has the right to a private life, when one is a public figure and president, one must be careful to avoid being ridiculous. He is the ridiculous president.”

Paradoxically it may well be his personal woes that are the making of Hollande. Having banned any mention of mistresses, scooters and first ladies at the Jan. 14 press conference, Hollande rolled out some firm economic measures including cuts in public spending and taxes on businesses, as well as an easing of employment and trading regulations and job-creation schemes.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development welcomed the measures, describing them as “highly encouraging” and in line with its recommendations.

As the Economist noted in an article titled “Le Hollande nouveau,” Hollande was at last sounding “like a leader who knows what needs to be done to repair France’s economic weaknesses.” It added: “He may have been emboldened by indignation, if not new love.”

Kim Willsher is an award-winning foreign correspondent based in Paris