France’s Next President

PARIS – In a little more than a year, the French will vote to elect their new president. It is, of course, far too early to make any predictions. If “one week is a long time in politics,” as former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson is reported to have said, then a year is an eternity. And yet, given the high stakes of the outcome for France and Europe, a first assessment should be attempted.

If opinion polls are to be believed, France’s next president will not be François Hollande or Nicolas Sarkozy, the two most recent holders of the office. Hollande is the incumbent, but his performance has been disappointing on nearly all fronts, especially when it comes to tackling unemployment. Sarkozy’s chances are crippled by his unsavory character.

The French president under the Fifth Republic is, in British terms, both monarch and prime minister. He holds symbolic as well as real powers. Sarkozy failed, above all, to incarnate the Republic with dignity; Hollande has failed in the realms of both incarnation and action. To put it bluntly, a man who was simply “too much” was succeeded by one that was just “not enough.” As a result of this tandem, badly needed structural reforms have been left undone or were implemented only when it was too late.

The impact on Europe has been no less disappointing. Not since the end of François Mitterrand’s term in 1995 has there been a French president that is a match for a German chancellor. The resulting disequilibrium – not enough France, and thus too much Germany – has been one of the major political problems facing the European Union.