Now, a French Spring?

Less than one year after François Hollande’s election as president and the stunning victory of his socialist supporters at the National Assembly, there is a widespread feeling in France that his administration is doomed. According to the latest poll released by Journal du Dimanche on April 21, 74% of the French now entertain bad opinions about Hollande as president, whereas only 25% still support him. These represent the worst figures ever for a head of state at the same point in his mandate since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958.

The French media wonder whether such discontent may lead to a constitutional crisis -- or even a revolution. A French Spring. "Is this 1789?" asked Le Point, a right-of-center magazine. This is a reference to the Great Revolution of 1789 that terminated the Old Regime not just in France, but all over continental Europe. Le Point’s cover featured Hollande as Louis XVI, with a white wig and surrounded by bloodthirsty sans-culottes.

Le Nouvel Observateur, a left-wing magazine, offered a different yet equally ominous parallel: "Are the 1930s back?" The 1930s were a time for both left-wing and right-wing revolutions in Europe: Stalin-style communism on one hand, Fascism and Nazism on the other hand. In France, it materialized in right-wing riots in 1934, in a Popular Front electoral victory in 1936, and finally -- after a crushing military defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany in 1940 -- in a far right dictatorship: the Vichy regime.

L’Express, a left-of-center magazine, devoted its cover to "an imploding Left." The point is that the Left should currently be, in classic democratic terms, fully equipped to shape current French politics at will. In addition to the presidency and the National Assembly, it holds a majority in the Senate, the regional assemblies, and most municipalities, either alone or together with its left-wing allies the Green party and the neocommunist Left Front. But its actual grip over the country, or its ability to pass legislation, is dwindling.

Why so much bad luck? First and foremost, there is the personal factor: Hollande has no charisma whatsoever. He was elected against the unpopular outgoing conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy, rather than on his own merit or on his escapist, loony Left platform. He used to be pudgy; he is now flabby. He does not know how to dress -- a deadly detail by French standards. He is a poor orator, due both to a high, pinched voice and to a shabby command of the French language and French literary classics.

His private life cannot be turned into an asset either: he lived for decades with Ségolène Royal, another socialist politician (who actually ran as a much more charismatic presidential candidate of the Left against Sarkozy in 2007) and fathered her four children, but did not marry her. He now lives, still unmarried, with a rather unmanageable journalist, Valerie Trierweiler. The French have always expected their leaders, until now, to be sexually active, but at the same time to pay lip service to traditional mores, which two presidents before Hollande -- François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac -- knew very well. Mitterrand, a socialist, never divorced his wife Danielle, turned his mistress Anne Pingeot into an almost official "second wife," and Mazarine Pingeot, his daughter out of wedlock, into a princess of the blood (with Danielle’s explicit consent). Chirac had scores of mistresses -- from movie stars to journalists -- but remained loyal if not exactly faithful to his wife Bernadette.

What should be taken as Hollande’s real qualities, and might have carried much weight in America -- his modesty, his sincerity, and his real courage in extremely touchy issues -- is ironically seen in France as further evidence of his weakness.