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Est-ce que 'Monsieur Normal' est normal?

By Madeleine Byrne - posted Thursday, 10 May 2012

Walk ten minutes from my flat in the 18th arrondissement in Paris and you find yourself among north Africans selling contraband Marlboro cigarettes at the station, or the nail 'technicians' and halal butchers of Château-Rouge.

And it was here, on the 'wrong side of the hill' that burst into a sweet, totally non-Parisian joy Sunday night (6th May) following the victory of Monsieur Normal, aka François Hollande - the country's first Socialist president in 17 years.

As one Guardian report noted, the response among my neighbours - white, black and Arab - was like that of a Punch and Judy audience boo-ing the villains as they appeared on the TV (former president, Nicolas Sarkozy and the hated, far-right leader, Marine Le Pen).


And yet despite his moniker, Hollande is far from 'normal'. Not unlike former Prime Minister John Howard power-walking in his Wallabies tracksuit, Hollande is a career politician who has the luck of appearing ordinary to the electorate.

Especially in contrast to the luxury-loving Sarko with his super-model, billionaire's daughter wife, Carla Bruni who encouraged much mirth during the campaign with her suggestion that they were a couple with 'modest' tastes.

The result was close - 51.6 per cent for Hollande and 48.3 for Sarkozy – and the second narrowest presidential victory on record.

So while the post-mortems of Sarkozy's defeat and rush to anoint Hollande as saviour of 'broken, burnt' France begin it should be remembered that large parts of the country preferred to stick with the status quo.

Sarkozy is the 11th European leader to lose office since the onset of the 2008 global financial crisis, but the country's weak economy did not drive the change. (Much to the chagrin of the Economist which described the 2012 presidential campaign as the 'most frivolous election' it had seen in terms of facing up to France's dire economic situation).

Few business-minded people I know have much faith that either candidate will be able to lower France's excessive public debt; reduce public spending via cuts to the state's bloated public service or lower the cost to business of taking on new employees. Significantly, since taking office on Sunday, Hollande's public statements have emphasised a pro-growth - not austerity - message.


As an Australian living in France, seeing Sarkozy go prompts mixed feelings. On occasion, his government shifted the debate in useful ways, away from the dominant welfare dependence - particularly among the middle-class – to a message of individual achievement and reward that bypasses family origins and connections.

Even Sarkozy's non-Gaullois name and background (his father was a Hungarian aristocrat) marked a change in French politics, as did some of his appointments, which included the controversial Rachida Dati, who was the first politician of North African background to hold a senior post in government.

When I first came to Paris, on the eve of his victory in 2007, I was struck by the media's treatment of Sarkozy as a pop-politician; mocking him as the 'bling-bling' President while fawning over him for his celebrity status.

But it was Sarkozy's media obsession, which at its worst encouraged attempts to force through knee-jerk legislation to shocking events that set the tone for a chaotic, ideas-heavy presidency which promised much, but achieved little. And it was this 'vulgar' media focus that ushered in Sarkozy's demise, in a conservative country that values modesty and good form above all else.

Perhaps it was Sarkozy's outsider status - unlike Hollande, he is not a graduate of ENA, one of the state's elite private universities – that encouraged such excess (and also tragically for France his recent racist pandering to the 6.8 million who voted far right National Front in the first round of the presidential elections in April).

Whereas a media-tart in Australia like Kevin Rudd can play to the gallery and get away with it, even be feted for it, the French tired of Sarkozy's theatrics and decided it was time for a change, albeit one that was both revolutionary and 'modest'.

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About the Author

Madeleine Byrne is a former SBS TV news and ABC Radio National journalist, who is now based in Paris and writing a book on asylum/immigration policy in Europe, Australia and the US. This work is supported by an Australia Council grant.

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