Paris, April 3, 2012 – What had seemed a long tranquil current of political success that was conveying Francois Hollande to the French presidency (first-round consultation April 22) has run into turbulence during the past few days, and while his canoe is still buoyant, Mr. Hollande has suffered a touch of mal de mer. He seems too reasonable and nice a fellow to be a great success as politician -- not accusations anyone makes about President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The contrast was evident during the recent days of the Toulouse murders and the siege and killing by a young would-be jihadist of three paratroopers, and then the cold-blooded murder of three young Jewish children and an adult at a Jewish school.
President Sarkozy was quickly at the scene of the siege that followed, witness to the drama and naming a close aide to head the government’s collaboration with the police who had found and surrounded the murderer, eventually killing him in a prolonged shoot-out.
Sarkozy had once worked with the same police unit when he was a young mayor in the Paris suburb of Neuilly, and had personally gone into a school threatened by a demented bomber to rescue hostage children. That first made his political reputation. François Hollande is not action-man, and his presence on the scene in Toulouse inevitably was one of passive observer, accompanying the journalist who is now his domestic companion.
The Socialists are also more identified with sympathy and tolerance for immigrants and their rights than is Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party. The latter has followed the crisis with orders banning from France a number of radical Muslim imams, whereas Hollande confronts the problem that the Toulouse crimes revealed the existence of a more sizable network of jihad sympathizers than anyone expected. While the present government should logically be attributed responsibility for this situation, the Socialists’ record inevitably links them to the support of Muslim immigrants, and of the social practices and standards of the immigrant community.
This affair has been followed by accumulating campaign difficulties for Hollande, where his alliance with the ecologists’ parties, to which he ceded a certain number of reserved parliamentary constituencies, threatens to come apart.
The Green party candidate, Eva Joly, a Norwegian immigrant in France who for many years was an investigating magistrate in the police and court system, has failed to awaken much enthusiasm. She is running 2/3% in the polls, and Socialist party members are anxious that she retire and the constituencies be handed over to Socialist candidates who seem much more likely to win them.
Finally, the unexpected threat from the depths that faces Hollande is named Jean-Luc Melenchon, a former Communist leader who is now head of what is known as the Front de gauche, an electoral party built up from the remnants of the Communist Party (once the leading party of post-World War II France), combined with the survivors of various Trotskist electoral initiatives of recent years.
The latter usually have managed to establish a role in the electoral competition (sometimes a significant one, even if their adherents tend towards the adolescent or the nostalgic; their presidential candidate last time was a sympathetic postman, who went on delivering the letters during the election). This spring Melenchon has held unexpectedly large and enthusiastic rallies at the Place de Bastille and elsewhere, far outflanking, on the Left, the campaign promises of the orthodox Socialists.
The threat – still relatively small – is that Melenchon might capture a large enough part of the Socialist vote to prevent Hollande from winning the first round of the presidential election. It is scarcely imaginable that he could displace Hollande, but his candidacy could combine with other marginal parties to throw the election into confusion. Hollande, in order to win the presidency, must have a clear-cut second-round showdown with Sakorzy, which present polls say he will easily win. But then you can never tell.