Back to Utopia?

France's presidential election appears to herald European voters' turn away from charismatic leaders in favor of bland normalcy. But almost one-third of French voters supported extremist parties in the first round, and normalcy is the last thing that they want.

PARIS – France no longer claims center stage in world history, but it remains influential beyond its national borders. From the eighteenth century on – including Charles de Gaulle’s epic role in World War II, decolonization in Africa, and the May 1968 student revolt – France has been a frequent bellwether of deep societal changes across Europe. Will its recent presidential election continue that tradition?

François Hollande, bland and bureaucratic, campaigned on a promise to be a “normal” president, unlike the colorful incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy – and, indeed, unlike all of his predecessors since the Fifth Republic was established in 1959. Hollande’s victory thus may be a sign that democratic countries have become reluctant to be led by flamboyant or charismatic presidents or prime ministers.

Indeed, across Europe, no democracy is currently led by a strong or charismatic personality. Italy remains under an interim administration, but there, too, voters appear to have turned their backs on a rococo ruler. Europe has no Sarkozy or Silvio Berlusconi, but also no Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, or José Maria Aznar. At a time of economic and institutional crisis in Europe, all European leaders appear to be, well, extremely normal.

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