Hollande quits race as hurdles prove too high

The campaign season in France left with a more uncertain ending than ever before

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Midway through his presidential term, in 2014, French President Francois Hollande announced that he would not seek reelection if his administration was unable to decrease unemployment in the country. On Thursday night, Hollande kept his promise. After five years in power, he will be the first French President to leave voluntarily after a single term. The lack of results and the commitment he had taken to run through an uphill primary within his own party to gather legitimacy were hurdles too high for him.

The man who prided himself with being a ‘normal’ president – as opposed to his boisterous predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy – left the stage without losing his head into a megalomaniac quest for a public endorsement that always seemed to escape him. This wise and realistic decision stands out in comparison with the resounding defeat handed to Sarkozy in the first round of his Republican Party primary election two weeks ago. Hollande had been elected following an unlikely turn of events with the disqualification of the then front runner, IMF Director Dominique Strauss Kahn, after a sex scandal in New York and thanks to an already massive rejection of the incumbent Sarkozy. He was never able to shake off this feeling among the French population that he was not up to the task and eventually had to leave through the back door.

Strategic considerations

Francois Hollande’s renouncement was dictated by obvious strategic considerations. Six months before the presidential ballot, his chances were virtually nonexistent as his approval ratings almost touched single digits. More importantly, his political family faces an almost certain defeat if it cannot unite behind a single candidate and Hollande, in the face of challenges within the socialist party itself, would not have been able to create any kind of momentum in the upcoming election.

Every opinion poll pointed to an early defeat in the first round, far behind Marine Le Pen and her extreme right National Front party, and the newly heralded Republican candidate Francois Fillon.

A first account of his achievements as president offers nuanced results at best. Economically, Hollande was not able to adopt a clear continuous strategy during his administration. He first opted for a strong statist policy, raising taxes and attempting to reduce inequalities. After calamitous results the first year, he then adopted a 180 degrees turn by providing fiscal gifts to companies with no binding commitment to hire workers. As a result, he lost support from both wings of the socialist party.

To be fair, Hollande took over a country in 2012 deeply divided by Sarkozy’s populism and debate on the French identity which polarized a country in need of unity. He also inherited an ailing economy with a debt level and deficits that had skyrocketed under his predecessor. Hollande was able to quietly reduce the debt and deficit, albeit slowly, and clear signs of recovery have been recorded including an unemployment rate which slowly decreased over the last six months. But in the eyes of the French citizens, this was too little too late, even if the terrorist attacks in Paris had strong impact on several industries and on the tourism sector.

Foreign policy successes

On the international scene, Hollande should be credited with an above average performance as he can boast of a series of achievements. The recent COP 21 Summit on Climate Change led to the signing of the historical Paris Agreement on emission reduction.

In Africa, Hollande was prompt to react in Mali and Central Africa to prevent the falling of moribund democracy into the hands of extremists or impede the development of a civil conflict, 20 years after the Rwanda genocide. Regarding Syria, Hollande was abandoned by Cameron and Obama, while his strategy to dislodge Assad and protect the rebellion was probably the right one.

On the domestic scene, Hollande’s administration will be of course remembered for the wave of terrorist attacks that hit the country, from the Charlie Hebdo assassination in January 2015 to the attack in Nice last July. One should praise the reactions from Hollande as he was able to maintain a societal unity and reaffirm French secularism at a critical time, while opposition leaders and the xenophobic National Front were aiming for short-term electoral gains.

Hollande’s decision not to contest now provides an opportunity for his Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, whose stature as a potential head of state was reinforced by his years at the helm of the government. If he manages to survive the Socialist Party primary elections and isolate his former economy minister Emmanuel Macron who decided to run as an independent, Valls has an interesting road ahead of him for the upcoming elections. The choice of Francois Fillon by the Republicans, instead of more moderate candidates, might have marginalized a centrist electorate that could easily fall behind Valls.

The most obvious loser during the last 10 days has been Marine Le Pen who hoped for a remake of the 2012 elections against Hollande and Sarkozy.

Instead, she will have to square off with a popular republican that holds almost the same reactionary positions in regards to abortion or same sex marriage and is therefore likely to steal voters from her. In front of them, will stand a new face from the socialist party. If it is Valls, his right-liberal stances will resonate positively among undecided voters and he actually stands a real chance if he can unite his own party.

Hollande’s move has now officially left open the campaign season in France with a more uncertain ending than ever before.