The French presidential election has seen countless ‘firsts’: an incumbent president not standing for a second term; his party’s candidate getting only 6 per cent of the vote; a final round that includes neither of the two main parties; a likely winner with no party at all; a losing candidate who delivered speeches via hologram.
François Hollande’s decision not to stand for re-election and his unprecedentedly low popularity ratings aren’t the only records he set as president. He provoked the most-signed petition in France’s history, with more than 1.3 million signatures against his pro-market Labour Act in 2016, and was responsible for deporting a record number of undocumented immigrants. If nothing else, he will hope to be remembered favourably for his brave move to legalise gay marriage. But even this led to the largest demonstrations the Fifth Republic has ever seen, with hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to the streets across the country, accompanied by a steep increase in homophobic incidents.
Hollande’s presidency was never meant to be like this. He was elected in 2012 on a message of change, hope and inclusion. He promised to confront ‘my real enemy … the world of finance’ with a 75 per cent tax rate on earnings over a million euros. He swore to be ‘exemplary’ in his actions. The new ‘Mr Normal’, he called himself, the anti-Sarkozy.
His fall began after only a few months. Jérôme Cahuzac, his finance minister, was leading the fight against tax evasion when he was accused of holding a secret Swiss bank account to avoid paying taxes. Cahuzac vehemently denied the allegations; Hollande defended him all the way. The scandal stretched on for months until Cahuzac finally made a teary confession: he had had a secret foreign bank for twenty years. He was sentenced to three years in prison. Not long afterwards, it emerged that Hollande was having an affair with an actress, igniting a bitter and public fallout with his ex-partner. Suddenly it all seemed a bit Sarkozy. ‘Mr Normal’ meant plus ça change.
The unemployment rate hit a 13-year high in Hollande’s first year and stayed above the European Union’s average for his entire term. In 2014, having already abandoned the promised 75 per cent tax rate, the government granted €41 billion in tax breaks for companies over three years, in the name of job creation. Several left-wing members of the government resigned. Benoît Hamon, then education minister, now the Socialists’ defeated candidate for the presidency, was among them.
One of Hollande’s more striking new appointments was of a 36-year-old political novice as economic minister. The surprise was not so much Emmanuel Macron’s background in banking, or his lack of left-wing credentials, or even his lack of experience. It was more that so few people had heard of him. He had been deputy secretary-general at the Elysée Palace since 2012, when Hollande plucked him from Rothschild. His advisory role in a multibillion dollar Nestlé acquisition had earned him the nickname ‘The Mozart of Finance’.
Macron was a key figure in Hollande’s government between 2014 and 2016, and was even partly responsible for his unpopularity. The Loi Macron made working hours and pay more flexible and let shops open on Sundays. The prime minister, Manuel Valls, had to force the bill through Parliament amid public protest and accusations from the Socialist deputy Yann Galut that Macron was ‘disowning all the values of the left’.
Hollande and Macron share a political outlook. They are both fundamentally pro-business, pro-EU pragmatists, in favour of ‘moving beyond the right-left divide’. Hollande wrote these words in a book published under a pseudonym in 1985, La Gauche bouge; Macron made them the centre of his presidential campaign. ‘I am neither left nor right,’ he says.
François Fillon, the conservative candidate, sought to exploit their similarities. He called Macron ‘Emmanuel Hollande’. The slur didn’t stick – the most surprising thing of all about this election so far is that the economic minister of the most unpopular president on record should be the most popular candidate to replace him – but Le Pen will try it again in the final round. Of all the candidates, Macron was the one predicted to defeat her the most convincingly, but he is also the one she is most comfortable confronting. He epitomises the ‘elite establishment’ that, despite her own millionaire roots, she loves to rail against.
‘In one year,’ Macron declared in his first-round victory speech, ‘we have changed the face of French political life.’ If he wins, he will indeed change the face of French politics. There’ll be a new pin-up boy. But it isn’t clear how much will change beyond that, as Mr Normal is replaced by Mr Business as Usual.