05/11/2012 01:51 pm ET Updated Jul 11, 2012

Applied Classics: François Hollande and the Socialists of Golden-Age Athens

"Change is coming," François Hollande proclaimed to those of us who filled the Bastille Sunday night. Before it arrives, though, this petite pause may be Hollande's best chance to reflect for a few moments on the lessons and warnings which can be drawn from the past. And if he strained his vision past Mitterand, Bonaparte, even Charlemagne, the president-elect might find an interesting lesson on socialist leadership in the far distance of fifth-century B.C. Europe, and specifically from the two men who dominated left-wing politics in the twilight of Athens' golden age.

One of them, Cleon, ascended as people's champion during the crisis of the Peloponnesian War; the other, Pericles, was a radical reformer and first citizen at the height of Athens' power. Like Hollande, both leaders believed in an activist state, and like Hollande, both men were charged with leading an fractious democracy through a socially destabilizing crisis. One of the two, however, fell prey to the allure of expensive handouts and cheap populism; the other tried, with wise policy and firm persuasion, to save the Athenian people from themselves.

Président Hollande's choice, then: Pericles or Cleon?

First, the antimodel. Thucycides, the brilliant chronicler of Greece's great crisis (not, obviously, its last), clearly had it in for Cleon. An aristocrat and belated convert to the arts of courting mass opinion, Cleon was in the 420s the most powerful politician in Greece's most powerful city. He successfully increased pay for jury duty (a better job then than now, with no judges and no lawyers), helping many elderly Athenians earn an income, but doing no favors to a city already overfond of frivolous lawsuits.

Yet Cleon is better known as the leader who gave the Athenian masses what they claimed they wanted: war, war, and more war. He claimed to hate aristocrats and Spartans with equal malice, and as he had rode a wave of anti-Spartan sentiment into office, it was in his political interest to keep the war aflame no matter how ruinous it was for his country.

Like France and the 35-hour workweek, the Athenian antipathy to Sparta was as unconsciously emotional as it was rationally sustainable. And what outmoded labor rules and an overcommitted state are to France in 2012, an overambitious military was to the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War.

Then as now, the best politics was also the worst policy. As Thucydides put it, Cleon and his party consolidated power using "methods of demagogy which resulted in their losing control over the actual conduct of affairs." When, in 422, Cleon's rapidly assembled force finally faced the full Spartan army at Amphipolis, the weak-hearted populist "had no intention of standing his ground. ... [He] immediately took to flight, was overtaken and killed." The man the comic poet Aristophanes called "the pestle with which War pounded the Greeks" was gone, but his brand of leadership had ensured that Athens' best days were behind her.

Pericles, on the other hand, was the original champagne liberal. The well-heeled friend of poets and philosophers, he also put full political power in the hands of the popular assembly, extended Athens' maritime empire, and built the Parthenon, among much, much else.

Off the bat, there are some fun parallels worth mentioning between Hellene and français. Like Hollande, Pericles wasn't Athens' most pulchritudinous head of state; the poets of Athens called Pericles Schinocephalus, or "Squill-head," on account of his weirdly elongated cranium, and almost all images and statues covered his head with a helmet.

Moreover, just as Hollande began his campaign as the lesser-known colleague of the splashier Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Pericles too began his career in left-wing politics in the shadow of the more seasoned Ephialtes, who first proposed putting full power in the hands of Athens' assembly. Like DSK, Ephialtes was abruptly removed from the political scene (in his case, via assassination), paving the way for his lesser-known junior partner.

And lest modern readers believe that off-beat romance is a hallmark of French politics alone, at the apogee of his power Pericles divorced his wife and began dating the witty and beautiful Aspasia, who in addition to presiding over Athens' top literary salon was also known as a savvy political strategist and speech-writer.

Parlor games aside, I believe Pericles would offer François Hollande the following three pieces of advice:

1. Invest in your people, but choose projects that will last. At 56 percent of GDP, the French state is the biggest of any eurozone country, yet there is equally no question that France cannot merely cut its way to economic health.

For his part, Pericles balanced Athenian naval power abroad with massive public-works projects at home, "giving employment to all the numerous arts," as Plutarch put it, so that common people could benefit directly from Athens' prosperity. Those he could not find jobs for at home he paid to settle in new colonies abroad, today's settlers becoming tomorrow's trading partners. Pericles believed in infrastructure, not welfare.

This distinction is rarely an easy one to make; the promise of 60,000 new public school teachers, for example, could prove wasteful or a critical economic boost, depending on its implementation. Nevertheless, the calibration of sustainable and unsustainable spending may be the most important factor in the socialist president's success.

2. Tell hard truths, and persuade by example. Pericles' greatest political asset was undoubtedly his voice. Well-schooled in philosophy and rhetoric, contemporaries spoke of him "thundering and lightning" when making his case, and of applying a skillful touch to "the strings and keys of the soul."

This did not mean keeping a distance from the people, but on the contrary, reading them even more closely than they could read themselves. "When he saw that they were going too far in a mood of over-confidence," Thucydides writes, "he would bring back to them a sense of their dangers; and when they were discouraged for no good reason he would restore their confidence." Plutarch adds that Pericles' ability to persuade was amplified by the moral example he set, keeping himself free from all temptations to bribery or corruption.

Hollande seems strong on the latter point, offering to cut salaries for himself and his ministers by 30 percent as he contemplates budget reductions elsewhere. He has even shown modest success in balancing the books in his constituency of Corrèze, cutting free school buses as well as raising taxes. Nevertheless, the Socialist campaign showed far too much of the reflexive defense of entitlement promises -- a reduction in the retirement age, refusal to budge on the 35-hour week -- and far too little courage in showing how social programs must be updated and streamlined if they are to be saved.

Mr Hollande sums himself up as "seriously left-wing, but for a serious left"; let's hope he earns the judgement awarded to Pericles, that "it was he who led them, rather than they who led him."

3. It will get worse before it gets better. Pericles' final act as leader of Athens was a strategy of total defense as the war with Sparta began; thanks to the city walls he had built and steady supplies from its navy, if Athens could wait out the siege, it could not be beaten.

Then, the unexpected: a virulent plague broke out in the city. Athenians suffered under the double helplessness of seeing their countryside laid waste and their families succumb to disease. As violence soared and social order unraveled, Pericles took to the rostrum again, saying that it was precisely at the moment of greatest stress that Athens must prove its collective greatness.

He knew that the policy he believed in had cost him his popularity, but he also knew that caving in would cost his country more. "All who choose to rule," he said, "incur hatred and unpopularity for a time. ... Hatred does not last for long; but the brilliance of the present is the glory of the future stored up for ever in the memory of man."

As president, François Hollande has a priceless opportunity to enact reform, and the most necessary may be for a time the least popular. The centralized powers of the French presidency, incidentally, give Hollande an opportunity that Barack Obama -- who in his first term watched reform after reform crash against the rocks of a paralyzed and reactionary Senate -- would have killed for.

In his most famous speech, perhaps the most famous in classical history, Pericles commemorates the Athenian war dead with the following statement of what it was they had died for:

"Taking everything together, I declare that our city is an education to Greece, and I declare that in my opinion each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, which exceptional grace and versatility. ... Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now."

Is there any doubt that, despite ironic protests to the contrary, this is precisely what every Paris café-dweller and Bordeaux vigneron believes about his native land?

Président Hollande may not be able to deliver another Golden Age, but if he follows Pericles' example, he can still breathe new life into this enchanting old song.