Hollande: Back to the Future

02/01/2012 11:52 am ET | Updated Apr 02, 2012

When Nicolas Sarkozy was elected in 2007, he represented everything new in French politics; so much so he was dubbed an "American president." Unlike every other French president, he was not a good administrator: He was a star. The French used to be known for refusing to vote for a candidate's character, but with Sarkozy they did just that. None of his supporters hid their fascination for this "man of action" who never hesitated to speak his mind, sometimes to the point of rudeness -- a flaw at work again this Tuesday when he rebuked a Spanish journalist questioning him about the French downgrade.

It is hardly surprising that French people should be disappointed with his program, which ended up having nothing of the action and sparkle he promised. This is a factor in his poor showing in recent polls for the 2012 elections. Now the public seems to prefer his complete opposite: François Hollande. But how has Hollande, the exact embodiment of the shy, serious and boring politician that French people wanted to avoid in 2007, made his way up in the polls? Why does a man called "softie" by his own party appear the right solution to the many crises France is facing at the moment?

It all started in 2005. Sarkozy was the minister of the Interior, and he was trying hard to build his reputation. Not a member of the traditional elite, he had barely managed to graduate in law and although he passed the competitive test to the famous Institut d'Etudes Politiques he left without a degree. Yet he was part of a government for the fifth time. This made him look like a "self-made man" of politics. Sarkozy also appeared as a firm-handed man. He infamously declared he would "clean the suburbs with a Kärcher," a German high-pressure cleaner, when referring to safety and immigration issues. Some laws he implemented confirmed that he was intent on doing by force what his predecessors had failed to achieve through negotiation.

However extreme, this position brought a fair share of supporters. Jacques Chirac had been re-elected for want of anyone better and the French public had started to complain about the same faces always hanging on to positions of power. Sarkozy's election was an attempt at rebuilding French politics on a new, more efficient basis.

But then, Sarkozy won and the promised change never came. Those who voted for him were shocked to find that his reformist views lasted only as long as the polls supported his propositions. His "honest" speech was now deemed "rough" and when he very publicly married former super-model Carla Bruni only a few months after his ex-wife Cecilia left him, people felt his refreshing honesty about his private life was in fact indecent.

One year after the election, 73 percent of French citizens believed Sarkozy put his personal life too much on display. Fifty-five percent of them believed that Sarkozy "did not respect the presidential function enough." The president tried to change his ways back to what was expected of him, but the harm was done.

French citizens started to look for an alternative to the alternative -- thus ironically coming back to the very type of politician they were intent on disregarding a few years before. François Hollande stands for everything Sarkozy is not. He distinguished himself in no less than three of the most prestigious French schools, including the select ENA (Ecole Nationale d'Administration), founded by Charles de Gaulle and attended by many French presidents. He is also serious, verging on boring -- as reserved as Sarkozy is dazzling. Yet he tops the opinion polls -- 5 percent ahead of Sarkozy. This comeback of an old school politician suggests that Sarkozy's personality-based presidency is a failed revolution.

Yet it would be a mistake to believe that François Hollande learned nothing from his rival. In recent years "Softie" has undergone a dramatic change: he has lost weight, has started to realize the importance of the media and more importantly stopped trying to accommodate everyone. These changes have not passed unnoticed. They are commented on with admiration among his supporters -- and are ignored by his opponents. That means they couldn't find anything to criticize.

There's a paradox here. The French people have turned away from the showy personality of Sarkozy, which is proving so disappointing, to choose the more inconspicuous François Hollande. Yet this very choice clearly shows that personality has become more important than ever before to French people. It is important to the point that a major candidate has devoted a year to successfully refining his public image -- a few years ago he would have only cared about demonstrating his competence.

Hollande is competent. He has made huge efforts to become glamorous. Will that be enough to satisfy the French public's new appetite? Three months before the elections, the answer seems to be yes. But anything can still happen. The laws of attraction could shift because of a sentence, a picture in a magazine, a scandal. French politics have never been so personal, nor so uncertain.