France’s Very Personal Revolution

WASHINGTON — On Sunday, Parisians once again took to the Bastille, although this time, it was to celebrate the election of a new president. François Hollande ousted Nicolas Sarkozy in the run-off vote and will next week become the second socialist president of the Fifth Republic. In the midst of a deep malaise, the French asked for a head to fall, and obtained it. But it remains difficult to understand what the people really voted for or what they truly wanted out of this election. And it is because of such uncertainty that this revolution, should it even be one, will not spread.

Hollande campaigned on change, a proven recipe for success, but it is likely that a majority of the French electorate voted Sarkozy out of office, rather than Hollande into it. The French call it alternance, or the necessary change in political leadership for the democratic process to be fully viable. Left or right, and time permitting, alternance is unavoidable, but explains why political transition occurs smoothly in France, without the cacophony of other political systems in Europe. Parliamentary elections will be held in June and, notwithstanding a surprise, the newly appointed president should receive the support of a socialist majority.

While the French presidential election did not throw the country into turmoil, it did reveal some deeper scars, and the immense task that lies ahead to reunite the people. The country may be split in two, or three, even four, but  the election process did not create instability. Even the growing extremes are not in a position to hold government responsibilities. As always during a presidential election, the debate was passionate, sometimes crossing self-imposed red lines, and drawing the voters to the ballots as turnout topped 80 percent. But this time, it seemed personal. Voters did not explicitly vote against austerity. Although they shared broader concerns over jobs, growth, youth, and education, it was the relationship between the people and their president that was being put to test. That, certainly, will change.

In Brussels, the transition from “Merkozy” to “Merkollande” will also take place. François Hollande will not revolutionize EU affairs nor will there be a complete reversal of France’s foreign and European policy. Incentives for growth will be adopted, but as complements of fiscal consolidation. What will be negotiated as a compromise for an agreement in late June in Brussels remains to be seen, but austerity measures will not swiftly disappear. Looking farther ahead, the challenge is greater. Member states have to decide how much individual sovereignty they are willing to give up for the sake of a common future. President Sarkozy went further in the French concept of the gouvernement économique than anyone could have anticipated. By placing the intergovernmental process at the very heart of the resolution of the crisis, he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel set the tone and pace for the much-needed discussions on Europe’s political future. It is no surprise that François Hollande will meet Angela Merkel on May 16, a day after his inauguration, as he will need to show results quickly to assert his credibility in Europe and at home. Hollande’s meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama ahead of the NATO Summit in Chicago will also be closely watched.

It is still unclear what the French electorate really wants or if François Hollande will become the statesman he convinced the majority of voters he could be. What is certain is that the French public has asked for a different type of politics and leadership. France is struggling to answer the fundamental questions of its social values and economic principles. If there was one point of consensus, it was that beyond the crisis lies the preservation of the Republic’s core principles.

Guillaume Xavier-Bender is Program Associate with the Economic Policy Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels.