Independent on Sunday, 13 May 2012
Exactly a year ago, an event took place which would have a sensational impact on politics in France: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the IMF, was arrested in New York on suspicion of rape. At the time, Strauss-Kahn was supremely confident, a former inister and widely regarded as the Socialist Party’s best hope of defeating Nicolas Sarkozy in this year’s presidential election. Twelve months later, the fortunes of both men have taken a dramatic turn for the worse, while a relative unknown, François Hollande, has seized the top job.
Nobody would describe the President-elect as showy, like his predecessor, or a libertine in the DSK mould. I once met Hollande at the Socialist Party HQ in Paris and I certainly couldn’t argue with his presentation of himself as “Mr Normal”. Sarkozy began his term as president by embarking on a very public relationship with a supermodel – remember when he whisked Carla Bruni on a tour of world-famous burial sites? – but his defeat last weekend confirmed that the country had had enough of his bombastic style.
Hollande shows signs that he’s ready to break with the past in another way. For years he lived with the Socialist politician Ségolène Royal – they said they didn’t believe in marriage – and they have four children. They parted acrimoniously but Royal is confident of getting, and deserves, a big job in his administration. She ran against Sarkozy five years ago and lost; in 2007, before the economic crisis, voters were beguiled by Sarkozy’s brashness but it wasn’t long before his extravagance and sexual boasting began to grate. He appointed women ministers but they failed to impress and one of them, Rachida Dati, was so insecure that she returned to work only five days after giving birth.
For decades, the French knew next to nothing about their politicians’ private lives. François Mitterrand maintained a second family, ignored by the press while he was president, and an atmosphere of excessive secrecy allowed politicians such as DSK to thrive. The rape charges in New York were finally dropped but a French journalist accused him of trying to rape her in Paris in 2003, and the case was thrown out only on grounds of time. He’s now been charged with “aggravated pimping” in a separate investigation in France.
Rumours about DSK had circulated in Paris for years, but most people outside politics were astounded by his arrest. Sarkozy went to the opposite extreme, letting the French public know much more than they ever wanted about his courtship and marriage, while his new wife posed for the photographer Annie Leibovitz on the roof of the Elysée Palace. One of his ministers, Frédéric Mitterrand, turned out to have boasted in a book about his activities as a sex tourist.
For five years, sexual reticence was replaced by macho display, and voters didn’t like it (or Sarkozy’s handling of the economy) at all. Hollande’s choice of a younger woman as his new partner is conventional but he seems genuinely committed to the principle of equality in public life. That, and the fact that he and Royal are willing to work together politically, promises a new era in terms of gender. The ousting of Sarkozy’s bling-bling presidency by Mr Normal could be very good news for women in France.