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In Mitterrand's Shadow: Can François Hollande Forge A New French Left?

Op-Ed: François Hollande's winning campaign was cut from the cloth of the last Socialist to lead France, François Mitterrand, who swept into office in 1981. But to best serve France (and the French left) Hollande must break from his onetime mento

François Hollande in Rennes in January
François Hollande in Rennes in January

PARIS - A whiff of 1981 was in the air on Sunday, Place de la Bastille in the French capital: newly elected President François Hollande did not forget to recognize what he owed to François Mitterrand.

To win the presidential election, both in his tactics and his voice Hollande was inspired by his mentor. His unconscious mirroring of Mitterand went so far that he won with a very similar result: 51.7%, whereas his Socialist predecessor won with 51.8% of the vote.

Just like 31 years ago, Hollande made the most of the simple French desire for a change in power, employing a balanced and well-controlled campaign. He succeeded in taking advantage of the groundswell of "anti-Sarkozy" sentiment accumulating through the outgoing President's term – on account of his personality as much as his policy.

On Sunday, Hollande's victory was clear, but close -- and it won't automatically give him a majority in Parliament.

A huge challenge now awaits Monsieur Hollande: to change the country. He and his main supporters have already outlined the different aspects of this much-awaited change, following the results Sunday night. But the details were shared with great gravity and caution. With good reason.

That reason is that in 2012, even more than in 1981, France is going through a major economic and social crisis, more than ever linked to the rest of the world, especially Europe. François Hollande needs to convince Europe of the suitability of his growth project, even before he begins the legislative campaign that could give him the Parliamentary majority.

To gain some breathing space, France will need all the European countries on board. From this point of view, the presidential election has already changed things. But make no mistake about it: the various calls for growth in Europe aren't always talking about the same thing. When François Hollande dreams about a European "New Deal" – referring at a series of economic programs implemented in the 1930s in the United States by Franklin Delano Roosevelt – the conservative leaders of Europe think more about austerity policies and economic liberalization, especially in the labor market. Finding a compromise between these policies is crucial.

Emancipation from the past

François Hollande, with his Social Democratic culture and his European convictions, is certainly among the best leaders to work on such a compromise. He nevertheless needs to learn a lesson from the 1980s, and eventually to emancipate himself from François Mitterrand. When the latter launched reflationary measures in 1981 to try to spur growth, France went through a major crisis that led to the austerity policies of 1983. To negotiate with Europe, France needs to prove its will and ability to reduce its debt and deficits.

Even if he succeeds in changing the European policy, François Hollande won't be able to reverse the trend overnight, hence another important change that has to be made: his leadership style.

This change could be implemented very quickly and the effects could be felt immediately. On Sunday evening, François Hollande set this change in motion, in his speech and behavior. No Fouquet's fancy restaurants for his celebration: only the Cathedral Square of his hometown of Tulle, and then the Bastille in Paris.

He spoke again about the "exemplarity" he wants to embody: there will be no nepotism, no favoritism. Spurred on by a will and necessity to gather the French people together, and to put the country back on its feet, he encouraged his supporters to respect their opponents.

The economic and social process has its own rhythm. And for this reason, the method is important, not just the style. It means a new way to be in power, less stunning, closer to the French people and always respecting a basic principle of fairness. The way the French president rules can change quickly. This is one aspect of this New Deal, and its power should not be underestimated.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - Jean-Marc Ayrault

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