On the face of it, history seemed to be repeating itself. In Bastille Square, people celebrated the victory of the left in France’s presidential election, while in the bourgeois neighbourhoods of Paris, the heavy silence of defeat was in stark contrast with the jubilation relayed by television programs covering the celebrations elsewhere. But while 2012 may have looked and sounded like the Socialist victory of 1981, it definitely is not 1981.
There is today less hope and fewer illusions on the part of the winners, and less fear among the losers. Frenchmen are more worried about the evolution of Europe, starting with Greece, than with France. Whatever their camp, in the aftermath of the election the French people were able to appreciate the greatness of their democracy and the respect for the Republic symbolized by the presence of president-elect François Hollande at the side of Nicolas Sarkozy, still President for a week, at ceremonies celebrating the victory over Nazi Germany on May 8. After a hard-fought political battle, there was a sense of unity, even harmony, which of course will soon be seen for what it was, a short interlude before new clashes.
But for now, what prevails in France is a strange combination of serenity and apprehension. It is based on the conviction that whoever is president may not matter all that much. The scope for real and profound change is so slim that the best that can be hoped for is a series of compromises, between austerity and growth, and between growth according to Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, (liberalizing the labour market) and growth according to Mr. Hollande (recreating aspects of the Keynesian New Deal).
The situation does not allow for radical change, all the more so since Mr. Hollande is perceived – rightly, I believe – as a prudent and pragmatic social democrat who knows he has no time to waste and will have first and foremost to find a compromise with Germany, whose leader Angela Merkel is at least as pragmatic as he is. He is helped in his task by the deterioration of the situation in Greece. Each country in Europe is a different case, and it is easier in such a context to ask for sacrifices from those who have been backsliding and to reassure the others.
Above all, it must be understood that the French have voted not against austerity, but against Mr. Sarkozy. The election was not a clash between austerity and growth, but a confrontation between two different personal styles. Tired of Bonaparte, the French went for his opposite, a Gallic version of Harry S. Truman.
It would be dangerous, though, to underestimate the incoming French president. He is clearly not the shallow person described by his opponents, in particular his rivals in the Socialist Party. In fact, there have been three Hollandes thus far.
The first was a typical young politician – though more straightforward and funnier than most of his contemporaries in the French meritocratic elite. He was then working in a junior position at the Élysée Palace under his model and mentor François Mitterrand. The second Hollande was secretary-general of the Socialist Party, a demanding job where he demonstrated his sense of compromise, while also showing a certain lack of decisiveness, although he proved able to take harsh decisions when necessary.
The third Hollande is a man who, to the surprise of so many of his friends and rivals, became imbued with presidential ambition. This is the Hollande the world will have to live with, a man who, though clearly not charismatic, is at ease with himself and uses his natural good-naturedness to create a personal link with people, and who does not unnecessarily infuriate his fellow heads of government by constantly overdoing it, the Sarkozy way.
Thus the French are right to be serene about their new president, even as they worry about the future course of Europe.
Dominique Moisi is a senior adviser at IFRI, the French Institute for International Relations.