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Back to Utopia?

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.

For many, the victory of normalcy over charisma should be cause for celebration. Democracy is about normal citizens electing normal men and women to lead them for a limited period according to established rules.