President Francois Hollande is leaving office with approval ratings that would make Fred West distance himself. Why is he so unpopular? What terrible thing did he do? Well, alright, he did that thing that every sane Frenchman must know is lethal. It wasn’t having a mistress that was the problem. Sure, that’s to French politics what having a favourite piece of scripture is to US politics. No, he humiliated his partner in the process, and that is the political equivalent of sticking a fork in a toaster.
Even so, he could probably have weathered even that if he’d been actually successful as president, and addressed the economic malaise and self-doubt that that has gripped the French for the last fifteen years. It wasn’t that he did something bad. It was that he, like Sarkozy and Chirac before him, was terrified of doing anything. He simply refused to make bold but unpopular decisions until it was too late.
As he packs his boxes over the weekend it must have occurred to him that trying to avoid being unpopular does not automatically make one popular. It makes one look weak, and that’s never popular. Unlike Blair or Merkel or even George W. Bush who will find their legacies debated for decades, Hollande will be the forgotten president. Not even a quietly competent unshowy John Major type. Just forgotten. That’s not an achievement.
Supposing he had attempted to push through big and radical economic changes, as Gerhard Schroeder had in Germany. Would it have saved his presidency? Possibly not. But Schroeder didn’t leave office a failure. Merkel only bested Schroeder’s SPD in 2005 by a single percentage point, despite his government inflicting radical and painful welfare reforms. He left with a legacy, and that matters. Germany’s prosperity today can be traced in part back to Schroeder’s courage in office.
Hollande’s legacy will be the image of him on a scooter visiting his mistress, looking like a randy Snoopy.