By Geert De Clercq -
WHEN Nicolas Sarkozy won the French presidency in 2007, the roaring Noughties were still in full swing and his message of “work more to earn more” was in sync with the times.
Five years later, sobriety, solidarity and a desire for fairness define the zeitgeist and Sarkozy’s Socialist challenger Francois Hollande seems more in tune with the spirit of the age.
Winning an election requires a potent mix of charisma and a project that captures the public mood. Sarkozy’s 2007 Socialist opponent Segolene Royal had plenty of personality but, with the economy growing and the stock market booming, her message of social justice did not fly.
This time, the mood is different. With both contenders vowing to balance state books, voters know the coming years will be austere and they are looking for a leader who makes everyone share the sacrifice while safeguarding the welfare state.
Style matters too. The French are fed up with a “bling-bling” president seen as a friend of the rich. Hollande’s modest manner is reassuring and his vow to make justice his guiding principle speak to the anxieties of this decade, the Teenies.
If he wins the May 6 runoff — as all polls predict — his style and message will be studied well beyond France’s borders.
“In 2007 Sarkozy embodied dynamism and optimism, but now the French are fearful. They want more regulation and a president who protects them,” said Alain Duhamel, the dean of French political commentators.
For Christian Salmon, a writer on French politics, the neo-liberal revolution that began in the early 1980s with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher hit the buffers with the global financial crisis of 2008, but no new ideology has yet emerged.
“While we wait for the emergence of a new political paradigm, the new leaders in Europe today all have more of an ethos than an ideology: the ethos of the bespectacled accountant who will restore order in the country,” he said.
Salmon said the crisis has made the traditional divide between conservatives and social democrats less relevant than a new split between exuberant but distrusted showmen like Silvio Berlusconi and Sarkozy and duller but steadier personalities like Italy’s Mario Monti, Spain’s Mariano Rajoy and Hollande.
“It is a time for modesty and ethics that started in 2008 with Barack Obama,” Salmon said.
Outside the political sphere, some were early to sense the changed spirit of the age. In January 2009, less than a year into the crisis, German-born Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld heralded a “New Modesty”, saying that bling was over and that the crisis would bring a big moral spring cleaning.
Hollande’s plan to raise taxes on banks, big companies and the rich appeals to a deep desire for fairness after a decade in which inequality rose to 30-year highs.
So does his promise to be a “normal” president, answerable to the courts like any other citizen. Hollande has said his government's first decision would be to cut presidential and ministerial pay by 30 per cent and he pledges to travel in France by train instead of presidential jet when possible.