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Sunday 19 January 2014


Step aside Berlusconi, Europe has a new chief clown

In the words of his rival, Sarkozy, Hollande truly is 'the ridiculous president', writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Francois Hollande is not just a disaster as President of the Fifth French Republic: he's challenging Silvio Berlusconi for the title of First Clown of Europe.

Hollande is not flamboyant like the billionaire Berlusconi, whose forced resignation from the prime ministership of Italy two years ago amid myriad court proceedings alleging corruption, fraud and sex with an underage prostitute, had crowds shouting insults like "buffoon", "mafioso" and "dictator". With Hollande, epithets like "wimp", "incompetent" and "joke" would be more appropriate.

Last week, Hollande was forced to admit at a press conference that after 18 months of socialist policies the economy was in crisis and he had perforce turned into a social democrat who would cut business taxes and public spending. French journalists asked polite questions (their penchant for sleeping with politicians is one reason they avoid quizzing them about their private lives) but what was on everyone's mind were Hollande's three lady friends: the politician Segolene Royal, the mother of his four children; Valerie Trierweiler, his First Lady; and Julie Gayet, an actress almost 20 years his junior.

Hollande was involved with the journalist Trierweiler while living with Royal, but he didn't admit it publicly until Royal had lost the 2007 presidential election to Nicolas Sarkozy. He's allegedly been having an affair with Gayet since before his own election in 2012. His motto would appear to be: "Off with the old, but not until you're well on with the new."

Now -- being French -- when Hollande promised that "at every moment as president my conduct will be exemplary" he wasn't ruling out a racy sex life, but he was implying that -- Sarkozy, who was very public in office about his passionate affair with his now wife Carla Bruni -- would be discreet. Yet his private life is now under global scrutiny and he's a laughing stock.

His biggest error was to travel to his trysts with Mademoiselle Gayet on a chauffeur-driven scooter. As Sarkozy -- who hopes to get back into the Elysee Palace at the next election -- put it with ill-concealed glee: "That photo of Hollande coming out of his mistress' place with a motorbike helmet makes Hollande look totally ridiculous. He is the ridiculous president."

Unfortunately, Hollande is not just the head of an ineffective government: he's the head of state. And his ineptitude and ridiculousness is threatening the very foundations of the Fifth Republic.

Here's a bit of background.

Exciting events during the First French Republic, founded in 1792, included the guillotining of King Louis XVI, the Reign of Terror and wars that gaveNapoleon Bonaparte his opportunity to shine. It was replaced in 1804 with the First French Empire of which he was absolute monarch.

In 1848, the French drove their then king into exile and elected Boney's nephew Louis-Napoleon as President of the Second Republic. However, in 1851 the president discovered his inner Bonaparte, staged a coup and in 1852 became emperor of the Second French Empire.

Military disaster led to the establishment in 1870 of the Third Republic, which survived domestic political instability and international disasters until the German invasion saw it off in 1940.

The 21st administration of the constitutionally chaotic Fourth Republic, born in 1946, collapsed in 1958 over the crisis with Algerian separatism. Desperate politicians gave the retired General De Gaulle -- who had salvaged some wartime national honour with his leadership of the Free French Forces -- virtually a free hand in the construction of the Fifth Republic, which changed the presidency from a ceremonial role to one resembling absolute monarchy. Until 2000, when it was reduced to five, presidents had a seven-year term, during which they governed with prime ministers they could hire and fire.

The successors of the mighty Charles de Gaulle (1959-69) have been a mixed bunch, but with all their faults, Georges Pompidou (1969-74); Valery Giscard d'Estaing (1974-81); Francois Mitterand (1981-95); Jacques Chirac (1995-2007); and Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-12) were experienced and considerable politicians at national level.

Hollande operated on a small-scale regional level and was best known as the rather unsuccessful First Secretary of the Socialist Party, who became its nominee only because the brilliant Dominic Strauss-Kahn was destroyed by scandal.

Does Hollande want to replace Trierweiler with Gayet? If so, will that tempestuous woman go quietly? Is it true that Royal -- whose political career was damaged by Trierweiler -- set Hollande up with Gayet? It's a delicious soap opera which the French are enjoying at one level.

But at another, they're profoundly unhappy and wise heads are wondering if it's time to bury the Fifth Republic and go back to being a parliamentary democracy with a ceremonial presidency. As things stand, they're stuck until 2017 with a president who makes the world snigger and can't do his job.


Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards