This post is drawn from the Introduction to John Gaffney (2015) France in the Hollande Presidency: The Unhappy Republic (London: Palgrave).
France is back in the news again and, as in January 2015, for deadly terrorist attacks, this time staggeringly more deadly; November 13: 130 dead, 350 wounded 80 of whom seriously. The French presidency was not the cause of these attacks, but it is central to the overall political process, and in particular its inadequacies. The presidency and the regime lie at the heart of France’s ills. Since François Hollande’s election in 2012, economic growth has been non-existent, unemployment has risen unrelentingly, along with the popularity of the far right Front National and its leader Marine Le Pen. My recent book* identifies, chronicles and analyses this ‘dysfunctional’ presidential republic. I analyse what the first half of the five-year term tells us about the nature of the Fifth Republic, and the way in which François Hollande failed to understand the ‘performative requirements’ of the Republic, in particular the notions of time, character, and what I call ‘sequencing the self’. From a theoretical point of view I am concerned with the appraisal of the political performance of an individual and his entourage within a particular configuration of institutions and expectations. By 2015, in many polls up to 86% of respondents had a very negative view of Hollande. In my book, it is unavoidable being critical of Hollande himself and his team. My analysis is not, however, concerned with his real character except in as much as it informs us about his ‘performative character’, and his persona; it is the relationship of this to the configuration of institutions and to public opinion that is the central focus of my study. My focus is the presidency and its historical, cultural, and institutional conditions of performance. Paradoxically, I am equally concerned with presidential politics at the daily political level, because this is where the presidency as a perceived and symbolic institution and one that is ‘active’ in political life actually ‘performs’. The ‘trivial’, the incidental, the apparently unimportant, and the ‘trivial unexpected’ in French politics are now in a systematic (and yet chaotic) relationship to ‘real politics’, to the point where the trivial has become unpredictable in its effects and has major political consequences. The Hollande presidency is an acute illustration of the dysfunction of the presidency in the Fifth Republic. Functionally, actions, reactions, and responses all take place within a symbolic or ideational framework, in large part related to how the Fifth Republic is perceived, and has been historically perceived, ‘imagined’ and ‘constructed’ since 1958. I concentrate on how the republic functions and acts symbolically, how it ‘enacts itself’. I identify the range of historical and cultural reasons why the Fifth Republic is one in which ‘symbolic politics’ and its related myths, leadership image, discourse, rhetoric, and the President as the ‘embodiment’ of politics, have taken on inordinate political significance. The strongest myth is that of the recours, or return of the ‘saviour’, a feature of French politics for two centuries but given an institutional platform by the Fifth Republic, and used by all leadership contenders, even if they have already ‘returned’, i.e. are in office.
From the practical point of view, I ask a series of ‘normal’ political questions about Hollande’s presidency and his government/s: Why were they so unpopular? How do we account for the rise of all the negative indices of the regime barely four months into office? How do we account for the extremes, the surges of opinion, such as the widespread Manif pour tous or Bonnets rouges protests in 2013? More widely, how do we account for the general, we might venture almost clinical, depression of the whole population (and this before the attacks of January and November 2015 which terrified the nation), the political demobilisation of the electorate, and a growing disdain for politics throughout the years of Hollande’s presidency? Was all of this inevitable? What should Hollande have been doing? What should he have not been doing? And an even wider question: how do we understand this profusion of surface phenomena in terms of deeper structures and processes? Gestures and actions at a daily level ‘betray’, ‘reveal’ the fundamentals of the Fifth Republic. We can characterise, for example, the storm of trivial activity through the spring, summer and autumn of 2013 of gestures, initiatives, actions, interventions, short holidays, media saturation of presidential and prime ministerial ‘déplacements’ during July and August 2013 as surface expressions of a kind of neurotic attempt to ‘cope with’ the barely understood exigencies of the republic. These gestures were not unconscious but, beyond the grasp of their authors, they demonstrate, perform even, the dilemmas of the Fifth Republic, in particular the highly problematic nature of the presidency. The most dramatic – debilitating for subsequent negotiations in November 2015, and humiliating for Hollande in 2013 – was his making the Syrian chemical weapons crisis of August-September 2013 a personalised clash between himself and President Assad, then his complete marginalisation when Presidents Obama and Putin defused the situation in September 2013.
De Gaulle created a very singular republic based inordinately upon 1) the role of the persona of the President, the role of discourse and of personal image and gesture, and the ‘character’ of the President; and 2) the constructed, ‘imagined’ relationship between the President and people on the one hand, and the President and ‘France’ on the other. These two facets of the new republic in 1958 had a dramatic and complex effect upon the nature of political competition, the influence of the political culture (later the role of the celebrity culture), the role of the symbolic, and the role and configuration of the institutions, in particular, the presidency. In the Hollande presidency there has been a series of such fundamental and on-going miscalculations that they raise the question of whether the political actors understand the republic. Simple things like an appropriate way to ‘be’ the President – how to talk, not constantly to joke, control the public comportment of his (now former) partner, and so on – betrayed a lack of sensitivity to both the exigencies of the office and the nature of the republic. After every interview, announcement, and press conference in his first two years, Hollande’s popularity fell significantly. In 2012, 2013, 2014, and now 2015 virtually no gesture, speech or action had traction on opinion. At times, indifference seemed even to replace hostility, as if the President had become an irrelevance, as if he barely existed. And tiny increases in popularity after crises like January and November 2015 were less the result of Hollande’s actions but because the office embodies national unity.
Not that Sarkozy had understood things much better. Sarkozy’s style might or might not have been appropriate, but Hollande’s own was in large part based upon his being simply the negation of Sarkozy, operationally, stylistically, politically, and – which would come to be highly problematic – ethically. Hollande had faced only half the issue (i.e. what unwanted features Nicolas Sarkozy had brought to the republic); what was not developed was an understanding of what he was going to replace them with and why, and how.
Nicolas Sarkozy’s fate as respected new President in 2007 was seen as being sealed the night of his victory by an ostentatious celebration meal in the Champs-Elysées restaurant Fouquet’s. Very badly received by the media and the public, this perceived, somewhat common, ‘bling’ expression of conspicuous consumption and celebration inserted fragility into his presidential status, and then a relentless decline in the new President’s popularity. This was the first time in the Fifth Republic such an ‘event’ had had such a crystallising effect. Hollande’s going off on holiday (almost immediately after election, and while unemployment burned) in July-August 2012 was his equivalent to Sarkozy’s defining miscalculation. Each of these events tells us a great deal about the ‘nature’ of this republic today: a single trivial act, given oxygen, as it were, by the media and opinion, can throw a presidency out of kilter. In some respects, this is a new and normative feature of governance or mal-governance in France. In another respect, it is not new at all, or is rather the singular new expression of a fundamental feature as old as the Fifth Republic, namely, the dramatically consequent phenomenon of personal popularity, or more accurately in these cases, unpopularity, themselves the product of a complex ‘imagined’ relationship between President and public. Charles de Gaulle brought to the Fifth Republic a very volatile emotional political relationship. Today, de Gaulle approaches sainthood in the public memory, but that was not the lived reality. Although the volatility of the relationship was displayed by him as appeasing of conflict, he was viscerally liked and disliked (one might venture to say loved and hated, admired and feared) in almost equal and varying measure; and this relationship saw his ultimate undoing in 1969 (and, ironically, established the conditions for the perenniality of both the republic itself and his mythical status). Beyond popularity, moreover, was the question of political and emotional need, what was ‘required’ of the presidency and how this fitted into the rapidly established parameters of the new republic between 1958 and 1962. De Gaulle responded to this need by developing all the dramatic aspects of his character, lending to the new French republic the ‘character’ of its new President: grand, visionary, imperial – in manner if not always in policies – interventionist, dramatic, in a phrase, larger than life. And presidential character was in a relationship to public approval – hence the triumphs of 1958 and 1962 but also defeat such as 1969. The same was less true of Pompidou, who acted as a kind of dramatic relief from such imperium (besides, any attempt to ‘follow de Gaulle’, as it were, would have looked farcical); but Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac’s presidencies each displayed enormous swings in ratings of popularity-unpopularity in the polls. All of this suggests an emotional volatility between the public and the Presidents. With the celebrity culture from the 2000s onwards, a new feature does not simply emerge in France but merges with this deeper structural phenomenon of the Fifth Republic, changing the problematic ‘intimacy’ in leader-public relations: neither Sarkozy nor Hollande seemed to understand this aspect of the regime, the emotional intensity and complexity of an, albeit ‘imagined’, relationship, and the fact that with the new celebrity politics the President would be in the public eye on a daily basis.
John Gaffney is a political commentator and author, and currently Professor of Politics at Aston University. Specialising in UK and French politics and the discourse of leadership, he regularly contributes to TV and print media. In July 2012, he was awarded £77,000 by the Leverhulme Trust for a two year study of UK political leadership. His latest book, France in the Hollande Presidency: The Unhappy Republic (Palgrave, 2015), is out now. His 2012 book, Political Leadership in France: From Charles de Gaulle to Nicolas Sarkozy (Palgrave), is out in paperback.