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France's new President Francois Hollande and his companion Valerie Trierweiler leave the Elysee Palace after Mr. Hollande took power in Paris, May 15, 2012. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters/Benoit Tessier/Reuters)
France's new President Francois Hollande and his companion Valerie Trierweiler leave the Elysee Palace after Mr. Hollande took power in Paris, May 15, 2012. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters/Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

LYSIANE GAGNON

President François Hollande is France's common man Add to ...

Despite the dark clouds looming over Europe and its own financial problems, France has entered a period of calm and relative serenity with the election of François Hollande.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy's style grated on many French. They couldn't stand his impulsiveness, his temper tantrums, his unabashed love of glitz and money and his compulsive need to micro-manage any file that caught the public eye.

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At the end of his five-year mandate, the French were exhausted by this hyperactive and overexposed president. In any case, after 17 years of living under right-wing presidents, it was time for an alternative and for the Socialists to return to power. So, out of weariness rather than enthusiasm, the French settled for Mr. Hollande, a quiet and uncharismatic party bureaucrat who could be trusted to bring a certain tranquillity to public life – a “normal man,” as he once described himself.

Indeed, Mr. Hollande turns out to be a French version of the Protestant leaders of Northern Europe who make a point of behaving like the common man. His first move was to cut his salary and those of his ministers by 30 per cent. Breaking with the grand, quasi-monarchist lifestyle of his predecessors, he wanted to remain in his IKEA-furnished apartment in the 15th arrondissement rather than move into the Élysée Palace – but security considerations prevailed.

His companion, Valérie Trierweiler, a journalist, intends to go on working. She has three children to support, she says, and doesn't want to live off the state. The two are not married, which will cause some problems of protocol when they travel in conservative countries, but for now, they don't intend to tie the knot.

The cabinet he recently formed confirmed that Mr. Hollande will govern from the centre-left. The radical wing of the Socialist Party received only two minor posts in the cabinet.

As prime minister, he chose Jean-Marc Ayrault, the pragmatic and efficient mayor of Nantes and a former teacher of German – an asset since relations with Germany are crucial to France's future.

Foreign affairs went to Laurent Fabius, prime minister from 1984 to 1986 under François Mitterrand. In fact, Mr. Fabius, one of the brightest politicians in France, might have been in Mr. Hollande's place had his career not been derailed by two events. In 1991, he was accused of manslaughter (but acquitted) after infected blood was distributed by France's blood bank during his tenure as prime minister. In 2005, breaking abruptly with his party, he campaigned for the No side in the referendum on the European constitution.

Although as recently as last year he criticized Mr. Hollande for lacking presidential stature, Mr. Fabius is now back in the fold. He will bring much-needed experience to a cabinet mostly made of neophytes.

The real policymaking, though, will begin after June's elections to the National Assembly, which the Socialist Party is poised to win – albeit by a thin margin, according to a poll published last week by Le Monde.

For his first official outing, at the NATO and G8 summits, Mr. Hollande carefully avoided making waves. His first meeting with Angela Merkel was marked by strong disagreement. (The German Chancellor is adamantly opposed to the Eurobonds that France, Italy and Spain are pushing for.) It helps that Mr. Hollande has a sense of humour and a sunny, placid character. He will need plenty of that in the months to come.

 

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