Yesterday (May 15), François Hollande was inaugurated as the 24th president of France. Just a year ago, his path to the presidency was considered a long shot. But after the plummeting popularity of Nicolas Sarkozy and the very public downfall of Dominique Strauss-Kahn—the one-time frontrunner for the post—Hollande emerged victoriously. Yet even now, to many viewers, he does not fit the presidential mold. He isn’t regal and aloof like Jacques Chirac. He lacks the acerbic tongue of Sarkozy. Instead he’s quiet, soft-faced, and bespectacled—traits many political cartoonists have used to their advantage. Shortly before his election, Chicago Mayor and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel allegedly remarked, “He looks more like a prime minister than a president,” setting off rumors that he doubted Hollande’s readiness for the job.
Next week President Hollande will begin to answer to his critics, when he makes his transatlantic debut, traveling to the United States for G8 and NATO summits. And Americans should pay attention to these meetings between Obama and the new president of America’s oldest ally. After all, the changing of the guard at the Palais de l’Élysée—from the famously pro-American and right-leaning Sarkozy to the Socialist Hollande—will affect America’s relationship with France.
Born in 1954 to middle class parents from Rouen—the city where Joan of Arc made her last stand—Hollande parted ways with the Catholicism of his childhood and committed himself to the French principle of laïcité. France’s own form of “civil religion,” laïcité requires that within state-controlled spaces (e.g. schools, courts), the French identify themselves first and foremost as citizens of the Republic, an identity that trumps other loyalties, even ethnicity or religion. Hollande is today an avowed atheist and the most prominent member of France’s modern left and its Socialist party. In contrast, just last year, Sarkozy, the son of a Jewish Hungarian immigrant father and a French Catholic mother, hailed France’s Christian past, declaring, “Christianity left us a magnificent heritage of civilization.” It was a statement that some French Muslim groups understood as an attempt to court anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim voters.
While campaigning, Hollande presented himself as a sanguine unifier of France’s diverse political and ethnic constituencies. This was a notable change from Sarkozy, whom the French media have long considered to be a hothead. During his presidency Sarkozy often resorted to divisive rhetoric against the unemployed, (mostly Muslim) immigrants, trade unions, and even public school teachers. This past February, Sarkozy declared on television: “Multiculturalism is a failure.” He added, “The truth is that in all our democracies, there has been too much preoccupation with the immigrants’ identity and not enough focus on the immigrants’ host country.” His attack against “multiculturalism” was one of his particularly common, anti-Muslim—and “French First”—refrains.
Meanwhile, some journalists took to calling the ever-smiling Hollande “Monsieur Petites Blagues” (“Mister Jokester”). His biographer, Marie-Eve Malouines, credited his Catholic school education and his social democratic politics for his jovial, “Mister Nice Guy” reputation. Malouines told the BBC, “Ever since he was a little boy he’s used his humor to avoid conflict, to be the good guy, to be friends with everyone, and to avoid questions.” This trait carried into the contentious presidential contest, as Hollande often employed satire to point out the failings of his rivals’ policy proposals.
Now with the election (and perhaps the jokes) behind us, we will soon discover what kind of president François Hollande will become. Americans should be especially attuned to Hollande’s foreign policy decisions. Unlike Sarkozy, the French President-elect won’t so seamlessly align himself with the Obama administration. The first international meetings with Obama will play out more like polite, but candid, political duels than harmonious duets. After “Sarko, l’Américain,” America should prepare itself for “François, le Français.”
The first Franco-American confrontation will likely be over Afghanistan, as pulling French troops out of the region was one of Hollande’s top campaign promises. After a scheduled visit with President Obama at the White House, and the G8 summit at Camp David on May 18th and 19th, Hollande will join his NATO colleagues for a two-day summit in Chicago. At the May 20th meeting, Afghanistan will top the agenda. In Obama’s hometown, it is rumored Hollande will announce his first significant foreign policy resolution, calling for the withdrawal of the 3,400 French soldiers now stationed in Afghanistan by the end this year. (Sarkozy had agreed to keep a French presence in the country until 2013.) In this break with Obama, a decision the American president is reportedly trying to forestall, Hollande will side with the vast majority of his countrymen (and a growing number of Americans) who no longer support the war in Afghanistan.
Israel and Palestine also present challenges for the nascent administration. While Sarkozy was often considered a friend to Israel, France’s political left has traditionally sympathized with the Palestinians. Moreover, France’s Green Party, rumored to be forming a governing coalition with Hollande, has been a loud and reliable critic of the construction of Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, and America’s unwillingness to stop them. Some French Greens even participated in the June 2011 aide flotilla to Gaza, a year after the May 2010 “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” ended in a deadly Israeli commando raid.
Beyond political alliances, if the friends he keeps are suggestive of Hollande’s likely Middle East policy, Americans can expect a much tougher stance against Israel from the French presidency. Yossi Sarid, the Haaretz columnist and staunch critic of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is a longtime friend to Hollande; both men served in the congress of the Socialist International, a global organization of left-wing leaders, which has advocated for a two-state solution and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian territories.
Yet Hollande already met his first real international test just yesterday, when he held a joint press conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, only hours after his inauguration. Hollande urged Merkel, who currently holds most of Europe’s purse strings, to renegotiate her austerity measures, meant to assuage Europe’s debt crisis. He instead encouraged a pro-growth, public investments strategy for the European Union. This could be a point of convergence with Obama, whose own reelection very much depends on the economic heath of Europe.
If working together to solve Europe’s economic crisis will likely bring Obama and Hollande together on the international stage, the French leader must keep the American president at arm’s length in front of his domestic audience. The unemployment crisis in Europe, (with jobless rates at 31 percent in Greece, 25 percent in Spain and 10 percent in France and Italy), has led to growing mistrust of the European Union and its pro-capitalistic economic policy. Many Europeans believe they lost their jobs, or can’t find one, not only because of out-of-control deficit spending and unfunded entitlements, but also because of globalization. As suspicion of an economically united Europe increases, so do winds of nationalism. This is especially true in France. (During the presidential campaign, talk of erecting national borders emerged for the first time in decades.) And the traditional French corollary of nationalism is Anti-Americanism.
Intense nationalism also continues to mark French debates over immigration. France’s recession has led to an increase of anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim, sentiment. During a television appearance, two months before the election, Sarkozy said there were too many foreigners in France. During his five years as president, his strict enforcement of immigration policies led to record numbers of expulsions of undocumented immigrants, including families with French-born children. During the campaign, Hollande was not as explicitly xenophobic, but he also did not reverse Sarkozy’s positions on immigration. During one presidential debate, Hollande pledged to repatriate illegal immigrants, while proposing to create special “family jails” for illegal immigrants with children. Still, the animosity for the anti-immigrant Sarkozy was so strong that one poll showed that 93 percent of French Muslims voted for Hollande in the May 1st run-off. He also received almost 70 percent of French voters who identify themselves as “without religion,” while Sarkozy won 79 percent of the Catholic vote.
Along with immigration, the growing French Muslim population remains a political issue. According to the 1905 law that established the French secular state, public institutions were strictly separated from the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish religions: there was to be no public spending on churches and no proselytizing in state-owned land or administrative buildings. In compensation, the French Republic promised to not interfere with these religions’ practices. The 1905 law does not mention Islam. A century later, Muslims make up the second largest religious group in France. Of the estimated 3 to 5 million Muslims in France, almost a million are second and third-generation, French-born citizens.
This booming French Muslim population struggles to fit into the secular Republic, which is generally uneasy about these relative newcomers. (These fears seemed to be highlighted in March, when a native French Muslim gunned down fellow citizens in a weeklong shooting rampage.) Muslims struggle to find adequate worship space, with too few mosques and local opposition to the construction of more. There is also the issue of veiling. Ostensibly based on the principles of laicité, a law passed in 2004 prohibits the wearing of “ostentatious” religious symbols in primary and secondary schools. While the law means that Sikh turbans and Jewish yarmulkes are also banned, many French Muslims feel they are the true target of the statute. In 2011, Sarkozy backed a French law forbidding (the some 300) Muslim women who wear the full-body burqa, to do so in all public places, even on the street.
France’s leftist politicians like Hollande are conflicted by these controversies. On the one hand, laïcité is historically a left-wing idea, a way to limit the power of the Catholic Church on the French state. On the other hand, French Muslims make up a growing voting bloc for the French Left. President Hollande will have to find a middle ground between his personal convictions—a strict application of the laïcité—and the needs of his Muslim constituents. Here Barack Obama and Hollande might be able to commiserate, as immigration is a vexing policy—and a political issue—for both America and France.
Luc Chatel is a freelance writer living in Paris. He is a regular contributor to Les Lettres Françaises and the former editor-in-chief of Témoignage Chrétien. His latest book is Medias: The Failure of a Counter-Power.