PARIS (Reuters) — Francois Hollande's
advisers needed a drink.
Their boss, the president of France, had been dogged for days by
allegations he was cheating on his longtime girlfriend with a movie
actress. At the same time, he was making another big split — an
ideological shift that could have major consequences for Europe's
The pressures — his troubles at home, his attempt to redefine his
political agenda — all came to a head on January 14, as he
stonewalled questions from journalists about his private life at a
154-minute news conference he had called to outline his economic
Gathered afterwards in a room next to Hollande's office in the
Elysee Palace, his aides sipped mojitos and gin-and-tonics with a
few journalists and watched how his performance was playing on the
The door opened and in walked Hollande.
The man whose popularity ratings were at record lows for any modern
French president was in high spirits. He leapt into an armchair and
for the next 30 minutes enthused on his belief that at last, France
was on the right track.
"We have got to restore faith. People need to be able to say 'we
know where we are going,'" he declared. "Right now we are in the
process of creating a spirit of compromise — a French version of
It was a striking scene in many ways. His life was at a crisis
point, but his backstage performance was assured, even breezy. And
he had crossed a political line.
Those two words "social democracy" mean little in Britain or the
United States, but in France, Hollande had always shunned the phrase
for fear of blowing his Socialist Party apart. "I am a Socialist,"
he told reporters last May. "Don't forget for years I was the leader
of the Socialist Party — and I didn't try and rename it the Social
During his election campaign, he had declared the world of finance
to be his "main adversary", and pledged extra taxes for
Now he was telling the media he would reform France through a pact
with business, cut taxes and make 50 billion euros in extra spending
cuts. He used the term "social democrat" at least three times and
jokily invited anyone who wasn't convinced he was one to ask a
For much of the French left, social democracy represents a betrayal
of cherished beliefs in favor of the centrist doctrine of Tony
Blair, Gerhard Schroeder or Bill Clinton; the abandonment of pure
socialism and a tacit admission that capital has the upper hand over
As Hollande heads without a First Lady to the United States on
Monday, he is projecting a more business-friendly persona than the
"regular guy" left-winger France chose in May 2012 to replace
conservative ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Several people who know Hollande say that, deep down, he has always
been more of a centrist, who had calculated that he should present
himself as a man of the left to win election.
"This is not so much a U-turn as a self-revelation. He has finally
outed himself," said Serge Raffy, author of the 2011 Hollande
biography "Itineraire secret" (Secret Route).
Hollande aides argue the president has chosen an "acceleration" of
his policies rather than a U-turn. They stress his ultimate goal
remains to cut unemployment — an objective they say is still
Hollande has always been hard to read. Shortly after his victory
over Sarkozy, he received a group of French and German business
leaders. To one participant who had attended similar meetings with
Hollande's predecessor, the contrast was marked.
Sarkozy would treat his visitors to a 45-minute lecture, take two
short questions and thank them for the dialogue. Hollande received
them warmly, asked intelligent questions and listened hard. "He was
wonderful," said the participant, the head of a CAC-40-listed
company. "But I came away with no idea of what he thinks."
Hollande had learned from a master. His mentor Francois Mitterrand,
the Socialist ex-president nicknamed "The Sphinx", often quoted
17th-century Paris archbishop Cardinal Retz, a champion of political
intrigue, as warning: "Shed ambiguity at one's own peril."
For months, the president ruled by slowly building consensus between
different factions, for instance by making people pay longer into
pension schemes, but not raising the retirement age — a move
resisted by trade unions and the left.
But the 59-year-old was also showing he could work with business.
Just two months into power, he commissioned Louis Gallois, the
former chief of Airbus-maker EADS, to produce a report on how to
help French companies reverse a fall in their share of the world's
export markets. What emerged was a 20-billion-euro ($27 billion)
package of tax credits designed to offset high French labor costs.
Critics dismissed the step as insufficient. At the time,
international attention was more focused on the way France was
resisting "austerity" moves by Germany and pushing through a
75-percent tax on millionaires.
But the millionaires' tax was a temporary levy, subsequently watered
down and now due to be phased out next year. And the credits were to
be the first of several moves Hollande made to persuade business to
help restore the economy.
"There comes a time when you have to do things — and often those
things are neither on the left nor on the right," Hollande told a
small group of reporters in April 2013. Such comments echoed
Britain's Blair, who during a 1998 visit to Paris to promote "Third
Way" centrism told the French parliament that "there is no left or
right in economic management today."
By mid-2013, Hollande's more economically liberal ministers were
hailing a departure from the idea that governments could spend their
way out of recession, a view held by French Socialists since World
War Two. Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici even spoke of a
"Copernican revolution" in their thinking, referring to the
16th-century discovery that Earth rotates around a stationary sun.
Still, Hollande insisted that he was firmly Socialist.
But his actions hinted at change. He was pushing ahead with
sensitive plans to ease France's laws on hiring-and-firing and
extend contributions to pensions. Both reforms had the potential, if
mishandled, to bring thousands of French workers on to the street in
A week after the president had reminded reporters of his Socialist
credentials, he went to Germany and gave a speech enthusing about
the reforms carried out by former Social Democrat chancellor
Schroeder, who cut income taxes, overhauled unemployment insurance
and liberalized temporary work.
Critics such as left-winger Arnaud Montebourg had accused Hollande
of being an incorrigible ditherer and nicknamed him "Flanby" after a
French creme caramel dessert. His confidence, though, was mounting.
One reason for this was his snap decision in January 2013 to send
French troops into the West African ex-colony of Mali to halt an
Islamist insurgency advancing on the capital Bamako. When he visited
Bamako and the ancient trading town of Timbuktu, ecstatic Malians
rushed to greet him as "Papa Hollande" and "Saviour."
well have been the best day of my political life," Hollande, a
foreign policy novice who had just seen close-up the power he
wielded as France's supreme military commander, said on his plane
Back in Paris, he ditched the regular-guy image and assumed the
trappings of president. He started living full-time in the Elysee
Palace, moving out of the apartment in Paris's middle-class 15th
arrondissement that he had shared with journalist Valerie
Trierweiler. They had lived there since 2007 after he separated from
Segolene Royal, herself once a Socialist presidential candidate and
the mother of his four children.
The open-top hybrid Citroen he had selected to tour the
Champs-Elysees on the day of his swearing-in as president — a choice
intended to show his simple tastes — was swapped for an austere,
bullet-proof black Citroen C6 limo, the same model Sarkozy had used.
In July, he made his first cabinet sacking. He dismissed Ecology
Minister Delphine Batho, a leftist former Royal protegee, after she
told the radio she disagreed with a plan to cut the environment
ministry's budget by 7 percent. To the cheers of the left-wing, she
denounced "a lurch into austerity that dares not speak its name."
But Hollande was soon to get a new, unexpected ally.
As the French returned from their summer holidays last year, their
TV screens showed farmers in bright red bonnets trashing new
The tolls were to help tax road freight to pay for more
environmentally friendly transport. The farmers said the taxes would
kill agriculture in their rural region of Brittany; their hats were
a nod to a 17th-century peasant revolt against levies imposed under
King Louis XIV.
They were not the only ones who were unhappy with Hollande's tax
rises. A November poll by YouGov France showed 81 percent of French
people thought the tax system was unfair. Nearly two-thirds said
they had personally been hit by tax rises — the government had
promised just 10 percent would be worse off. Worse still,
unemployment was rooted stubbornly at around 11 percent: Hollande
was failing on his number one policy priority of bringing down
It was at this point that the recently appointed head of Medef,
France's main employers' federation, made Hollande an offer he would
Pierre Gattaz said business was ready to create up to one million
new jobs in return for less red tape on business and further cuts in
labor costs. He called it a "confidence pact." "The French have
understood that we have to cut public expenditure. We have to have
the political courage to say that we are living above our means,"
Gattaz told Reuters in November.
This was the broad deal that the president — who termed it a
"responsibility pact" — would unveil in the New Year.
DEATH OF FLANBY
The stage was meticulously set for a grand relaunch: First, Hollande
would make a brief announcement in his New Year's Eve address on TV;
then he would spell out the details of the pact at his
start-the-year news conference.
It is not clear when Hollande learned the event would be hijacked by
magazine pictures of night-time comings and goings outside actress
Julie Gayet's Parisian pied-a-terre. Already on the eve of the
pictures' January 10 publication, the magazine Closer had released a
teaser on its website. Reporters bombarded the Elysee with
Aides told Reuters they had known about the pictures in the week
before they were published. Gayet, now 41, had become a staunch
supporter of Hollande on his election campaign. A 2011 photo shows
her wearing a T-shirt with the slogan "I only date super-heroes," as
she and the president share a joke. In an April 2012 video clip, she
was recorded saying she had met him at an informal lunch in Paris.
"I discovered a man who was humble, just really fantastic," she
In March 2013 she had launched legal action over social media
chatter that she was Hollande's mistress. That intensified in July
as she went with him to his home constituency in the south-west city
of Tulle, while Trierweiler was photographed alone on a beach in
France has strict privacy laws which would have allowed Hollande to
file a complaint for breach of privacy, seek damages and even
theoretically pull the magazine from the shelves. He chose not to
use them. On the morning the pictures were published, his office
issued a statement complaining of a breach of privacy, citing the
possibility of legal action, but containing no denial.
If Hollande had thought Trierweiler would agree to a quick statement
jointly announcing their separation before his big news conference,
he was wrong: A source close to Trierweiler said she refused.
That forced Hollande to announce the separation alone, in an 18-word
statement on January 25. References to and photographs of
Trierweiler have since been removed from his website.
Early polls show many French were shocked by the apparent coldness
of the goodbye. The Elysee Palace declined to comment on the
background to the separation statement. There is no evidence to
suggest that political calculations played any role in the couple's
Still, some who know Hollande say the rupture did have a political
consequence, because it fits the "no-nonsense" image Hollande wants
to project from now.
"The text was written to fit the new reality: a man who takes charge
of things, in his personal life too, even a bit harshly," said
biographer Raffy. "He has killed Flanby for good."