Victory for the Left? Socialist 'Marshmallow' Hollande Wins French Presidency

After a long, bad-tempered race, François Hollande has won the French presidency, defeating Nicolas Sarkozy, who was swept out on Sunday in a wave of popular discontent in the eurozone.

The 57-year-old Socialist leader was applauded by supporters who swarmed around the Bastille monument in Paris to cheer the first presidential victory for the left since 1988. During his campaign, Hollande steadily denounced Europe's fixation with austerity, in favor of modest increases in government spending financed by higher taxes on the rich and businesses. He also backed subsidies for companies taking on younger and older employees.

Sounds good, but will he follow through? In America we've seen that big promises don't always translate into useful policies.

A bespectacled wonk, Hollande is a far cry from the kind of flamboyant playboy Europeans have become increasingly frustrated with, including Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the erstwhile Socialist leader whose presidential hopes were thwarted in the wake of his arrest on suspicion of sexually assaulting a New York hotel maid. Hollande has said that as president he will push ahead with his pledge to refocus European Union fiscal efforts from austerity to growth. "Europe is watching us, austerity can no longer be the only option," he said.

But claims that Hollande's win signals a big left turn for France are probably exaggerated. Hollande is more a proponent of "austerity lite" than a serious challenge to wrong-headed neoliberal policies that have been destroying economies throughout Europe.

Still, we'll take him over Monsieur Sarkozy. Sarkozy is a guy who would have embraced Bush-style deregulation and capitalism-gone-wild if he'd been able to get away with it. Since that program would have been a political nonstarter in France, he had to settle for destructive budget cuts that have wreaked havoc on France's most vulnerable citizens and slowed economic growth. And he threw in some nasty anti-immigration policies for good measure. To him we say, good riddance.

Hollande is more like an American centrist Democrat than a Bush-style right-winger. His close economic adviser, Philippe Aghion, is a Harvard guy whose work and career are not exactly suggestive of swashbuckling radicalism. Like the Obama/Summers team, he is likely to work with Hollande in prescribing a small stimulus to the people. Which is quite unfortunate, because a big stimulus is needed. Some, like political scientist Thomas Ferguson of the University of Massachussets, Boston, reckon that French Socialists may not even be as adventurous as American Democrats, despite the hand-wringing protestations of right-leaning economists in the Wall Street Journal who bleat as if Mammon himself were being led to the slaughterhouse:

"It should no longer seem plausible to any European, certainly not in France, to imagine that the state can manipulate an economy as a locomotive driver can move a train, by pulling a few levers."

Quelle horreur!

The American right, of course, will label anything short of free market creationism a communist plot, and Sean Hannity is already screaming about some sort of Obama-Hollande merger into a transatlantic Socialist super-president called “Obamalande.” You probably won't be hearing too much screaming from Mitt Romney, though, lest we are all reminded that he spent the Vietnam War hanging out in a French castle ostensibly spreading the good Mormon word.

Hollande, who earned the nickname "marshmallow" for his characteristic placidity, is not exactly cast in the Roosevelt mold, which makes one wonder what these frothing free marketeers are getting so excited about. He's more of a "hopey-changey" guy than an ass-kicker. "The change ... starts now," he announced in his victory speech. Sound familiar?

Mr. Hollande will officially take the helm later in May.


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