There have been rumors that François Hollande is contemplating a return to politics reported in French media over the last several weeks. Perhaps the stalling of the rise of his Wünderkind successor Macron during the affaire Benalla may have given the former president hope that a return to the ancien monde was possible. In any case, Hollande has taken his extended book tour suspiciously close to Macron’s vacation spot at Bregançon, and a (small) group of supporters organized a campaign to urge him into the 2022 race.
Knowing this vaguely to be the case, I had some difficulty distinguishing the authentic Hollande 2022 materials from what turned out to be a far-right parody account that briefly showed up on Twitter this week (so if you couldn’t tell at first which one the above photo was, you’re not alone). What finally tipped me off wasn’t the notion that Hollande had shown fermeté vis-à-vis du terrorisme—though this clearly had a different meaning for the “Noëliste” trolls than for the real Hollande supporters, the sincere campaign did celebrate the former president for his leadership during 2015’s terror attacks. The real tell was the hashtag #Lui, which I had to admit was a clever reference to Hillary Clinton’s “I’m with Her” slogan. Combined with the awkward photo of Hollande in an overly tight black overcoat, the spoof successfully reminded people that there is something a bit ridiculous about the idea that Hollande might think he’s got another shot at the presidency.
Walking around Hyde Park in Chicago the day I saw all this, I couldn’t help but notice a sharp contrast with the legacy of our own former president. To a naïve observer, there is potentially much in common between Barack Obama and François Hollande.Though few would accord Hollande the charisma or campaign skills of the young Obama (nor the historic importance of the latter’s victory), both promised bold change on the heels of unpopular right-wing presidencies that ultimately left their left-wing supporters deeply frustrated. Both presidencies ended with the ruling party politically decimated: the Democrats’ having lost thousands of seats nationwide as well as both houses of Congress, and the Parti socialiste‘s candidate Benoît Hamon scoring a near-record low in the 2017 presidential race. And both were succeeded by men whose rhetoric and often practice have relied heavily on a repudiation of their legacies (if anything, Hollande has seen more of his modest accomplishments hold up under Macron than Obama has under Trump).
So why, then, do we remember Hollande as the hapless Flanby, while Obama’s reputation has on the whole only improved since he left office (excluding of course those on the Fox News right who hold roughly the same opinion of him they have since 2009)? Why is one a laughingstock and the other a hero? Here in Hyde Park—to take an extreme example—his face appears on t-shirts; his official portraits hang in shops and restaurants; there is even an official plaque outside the Baskin Robbins where he and Michelle had their first kiss. Something tells me Hollande has no equivalent in Tulle.
Of course, there are a number of explanations for this discrepancy. The simplest is perhaps the best: though not without his political skills, Hollande is an average-looking man and an average orator, while Obama embodies the way many people wish their politicians looked and spoke. The contrast with Trump helps Obama on this count in a way the contrast with Macron does not. But America’s two-party system and culture also does a lot of favors for the 44th president. Despite everything unusual about Donald Trump, he is after all a Republican doing many things a Republican president would be expected to do (and if he is not saying things a president is expected to say, he is saying many things a Republican might be expected to say). Hollande’s disappointing presidency, on the other hand, gave way to a complete bulldozing of the French party system—as Art has written—which reflects poorly on Hollande in a way a more typical alternance to a Juppé presidency would not have. And then of course there is the binary way of thinking about American politics, in which everything one hates about Donald Trump tends to translate to an increased admiration for his predecessor. Unfortunately for his supporters and their would-be parodists, though, Obama is both ineligible too busy with his Netflix deal to seek a return to politics.