Why would any Frenchman vote for François Hollande, a ghost of a man with the temperament of Eeyore, over tiny, tempestuous Nicolas Sarkozy with his Napoleonic desires and flamboyant charm?
I have asked this question for the past few weeks of a wide assortment of French voters I happen to know—many of them every bit as flamboyant as the man they claim to despise. And the answer is always pretty much the same, and always astonishing: “We are tired of this cult of personality.”
By “cult of personality,” the French mean that Sarkozy has one. And it should be remembered that the French, by and large, tend to appreciate memorable leaders, so this sudden revulsion, this disapprobation of charm comes as a real surprise. The son of a Hungarian immigrant and a mother who was of Greek-Jewish origin, tense, skinny Sarko, as he is known, never went to the top French universities, never spoke the stilted language of the elite, and never deviated from the rough-and-tumble maneuvering that got him both the political jobs and the women he wanted. Carla Bruni, now the mother of his second child, was far from his only beautiful conquest. Small guys, as any number of Frenchmen know, do try harder.
The Socialist Hollande, by contrast, is best known for being jilted by his own beautiful girlfriend, Ségolène Royal, a fellow pol who first gave (four kids by Hollande) and then took away on a grand scheme. In 2007, Royal defeated her lover in a runoff to become the Socialist candidate for president. Lots of people took this as a sign that maybe all was not well with the Royal/Hollande relationship (especially since Hollande was henceforth known as “Mr. Royal”)—and lots of people turned out to be 100 percent right. Royal lost the election and Hollande fled into the arms of some lady journalist who these days plaintively informs the New York Times that her flabby friend “has kept a certain taste for hamburgers.”
Sarkozy, on the other hand, has his own flaws. Perhaps it would be a sounder tactic to schmooz a reluctant voter who refuses to shake hands rather than to tell him, “Alors, va t’en pauvre petit con!” Which means—well, look it up. Perhaps it would have been wiser to refrain from referring to the delinquents of suburban housing projects as racaille (“rabble”). Perhaps it would have been shrewder for the president to ditch the Rolex watches, the yachts, the lavish victory dinner at the famous restaurant Fouquet’s, especially in the current economy.
And yet—and yet. One wonders what exactly is so very wrong with the man? And what is so right with Hollande? True, Hollande has been riding a wave of approval following his announcement that he would impose a 75 percent tax on anyone who makes more than 1 million euros a year (“I don’t like the rich,” Hollande once said)—but wiping out the earnings of the highly successful has never been an excellent way to improve the economy of any nation. Dominique de Villepin, himself a former presidential candidate and a friend of Hollande, begged his nation with his usual lack of originality, “not to kill the goose who laid the golden egg.”
The French goose, however, is looking in vain for her golden egg. Unemployment is at a 12-year high, so Hollande has promised his electorate a vast increase in public sector jobs. This is a scenario that infuriates much of pro-austerity Europe, especially Angela Merkel.
How crazy is Merkel these days at the prospect of a Socialist win? So nutty that she offered to go campaigning across Frankreich with little Nicolas (who wisely rejected the offer). The French, however, are tired of the opinions of others. They are tired also of charm. They are not especially enamored of Hollande: he is too bland for their tastes, too lacking in the characteristics they usually love.
On the other hand, this is the rare French election, the rare Sarkozy moment. Financial security is everything—financial security and fear of its collapse.
Love has nothing to do with desire at this time.