Paris – François Hollande is perhaps the least popular French president ever. At some point, he had several poll ratings that were the worst in the history of the country’s Fifth Republic – the current presidential system under the 1958 constitution. But the man wants to be reelected. At least, most of his decisions and his attitude point to that direction. He has a key weakness: his horrible record. From the economy to the fight against terrorism, he has failed to a formidable degree. The picture of his presidency is quite clear and unflattering; from a stagnant economy to rising poverty and precariousness among workers, from a shocking failure to make France safer after the January 2015 terror attacks to messy situations on the foreign affairs front, and from a deeply divided society to the significant rise of extremes of a large variety of kinds. But despite all this, journalists and political leaders have incessantly made predictions as to an Hollande candidacy in the 2017 presidential election. And the mind-boggling fact, is that he could actually succeed in such an unlikely endeavor.
His chances basically lie in the polarization card which he has successfully played so far. And his efforts in this regard have borne results. He has, of course, been helped by the global situation, which has inflamed ethnic, religious, and social tensions the world over. And France has been no exception in that calamity.
Hollande was elected in 2012, amid a strong anti-Sarkozy feeling. The then president, Nicolas Sarkozy, had indeed infuriated plenty of people from a variety of backgrounds with his aggressive leadership style and with his penchant toward excessively promoting himself and his personal life. “Bling-bling” had become a serious problem for Sarkozy. By the start of the 2012 election, it had become quite clear to all observers that a Sarkozy reelection would be difficult. He was, then, widely described as an authoritarian president favoring the upper classes of society to which belonged. And even at the climax of his popularity, he had been a divisive figure, never refraining from making inflammatory remarks, and consistently failing to contain his erratic behavior. Sarkozy’s main and most dangerous rival in this election was widely believed to be Dominique Strauss-Khan, IMF managing director at that time. But that rival later suffered a set of legal blows, which tarnished his image and ended his political career.
In this environment, Hollande emerged, winning the primary election of his Socialist Party, with fellow party member Dominique Strauss-Khan out of the picture and in the a absence of a serious challenger to Sarkozy from smaller parties. But despite this, the election was hard and it was not an easy win for Hollande. It is safe to say that in this election, the electorate voted against Sarkozy rather than voting for Hollande. Seeing a strong mandate from the people of France in a win by 51.64 percent to 48.36 percent is indeed seeing a distorted picture. Yet, this seems to be what Hollande saw in that result. And he went on with deep reforms that have further divided French society.
In fact, Hollande’s first mistake as president was his refusal to see the deep split of opinions around his candidacy and that of Sarkozy. Both were at each other’s antipodes. Sarkozy was seen as the friend of the rich, while Hollande had once said that he hated them; Sarkozy was considered an out of touch star, Hollande promised that he would be a “normal president”. And there was a promise that would later haunt his relationship to part of the French left; as he claimed the financial sector to be his sworn enemy, but he became a strong supporter thereof after the election.
In short, Hollande’s message was: vote for me, I am not Sarkozy. His obsession with his vis-à-vis went far enough for him to forget that 48.36 percent of the electors had voted for the latter, and that others preferred not to go to the polls altogether. That obsession went as far as responding to a child who had asked him about Sarkozy, at an event that took place after the election: “You won’t see him anymore”.
Today, Nicolas Sarkozy has come back to politics after a short break from public life, taking back the presidency of his party and changing its name to Les Republicains – The Republicans. And although he has stayed quite popular within his party, his return to politics has been a severe failure. After he was the main decision-maker on the right, barely ever challenged within his party, Sarkozy is now criticized by many fellow party members, and his policies have often been contested by many of his colleagues whose automatic approval of his decisions once was a given. The reason behind that is his falling popularity at large. If one is to trust polls, and one shouldn’t, it would be fair to say that Sarkozy’s chances at taking back the Elysée Palace are quite slim.
But Sarkozy still stands a good chance of wining the primary election within his party, or a wider right-wing primary election the result of which would designate one sole right-wing candidate, instead of a proliferation of candidates that would harm this entire family of French right-wing political trends. So far, his situation has been worrying, but he should easily maintain his position as the natural right-wing candidate in the 2017 election. Yet, an Hollande VS Sarkozy confrontation in 2017 is not a given. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen remains popular and she has successfully branded the liberal Sarkozy and the socialist Hollande as two sides of the same coin, positioning herself as the anti-system populist – according to the positive connotation of populism – candidate for the upcoming election.