PARIS – How is it that France -- the world's fifth-largest economy -- faced with intense credit-rating pressures, chose a Socialist to replace President Nicolas Sarkozy?
Yes, President-elect François Hollande, who bashed Sarkozy's relationship to money far more than he bashed the rich themselves, is essentially a social democrat who has promised to be nearly as fiscally responsible as was Sarkozy. But that hardly gets at the core of France's presidential passions. Of course, economic storms have now washed away 10 incumbent European leaders (make it 11, with Hollande's victory), and after 17 years of presidents from the right, France was ready to balance the scales. Yet such explanations are, well, a bit wonkish, and a tumultuous, impassioned nation like France deserves a somewhat sexier take.
France, after all, is a woman -- a strong, compassionate, alluring, complicated woman. She is La France. She is Marianne, a risqué mythical figure who embodies the country's revolutionary struggles for liberty, equality, and brotherhood. It is no coincidence that on the old 100-franc bill, Marianne was famously represented by Eugène Delacroix holding a flag in one hand, a gun in the other, and heading into battle with her blouse coming off, leaving her breasts exposed. For the French, Freedom is also a woman, which is why it's no surprise that New Yorkers see one when they look to Lady Liberty.
To many Americans, France is fine perfume, stylish fashion, refined cuisine, unapologetic feminine sexuality, and the victimized nation that required saving from the violating Nazi Germany of World War II. And yes, in many Americans' vision -- which carries at least a hint of old-school misogyny -- France is also duplicitous, confusing, and particularly confounding in her taste in men.
Witness, then, the arrival of Hollande -- a man who has spent his career as something of a character actor in French politics, present largely for comic relief. Yet, from among its many suitors, France has chosen Hollande, a man long caricatured as either a marshmallow or a brand of supermarket dessert flan. He's a somewhat doughy, bespectacled Socialist with a sense of good humor and a history of seeking consensus. Even Hollande's most loyal advocates would never argue that he was a passion candidate. (His 3-point victory came largely thanks to voters who simply wanted Sarkozy out.) Yet, on May 15 he will become France's president for at least five long years -- not a lifetime, but in France that's quite a commitment.
To understand how it came to this, it is useful to look at France's presidential relationship history. There was the great wartime love for the black-and-white era: Charles de Gaulle, the sturdy mustachioed embodiment of upright (and uptight) husband-like fortitude. France could count on him; he showed his mettle, and the love endured for a while. But one day, France realized that she enjoyed her memories of de Gaulle more than the present. Like many partners, de Gaulle had stopped growing, and the world passed him by. France wanted more.
She had other men -- there was something of a looking-for-daddy phase -- but she didn't fall in love again for a while, and when she did, it felt like a sort of rebellion against her relationship with de Gaulle. France was excited and intrigued by François Mitterrand, but she only succumbed to his decades-long efforts at seducing her when she chose him in 1981. Mitterrand was the polar opposite of de Gaulle: a culturally refined and versatile-minded Socialist who spent time with intellectuals and frequented radical leftists. She had long resisted him -- Mitterrand won the presidency only on his third attempt -- but the love proved to be deep and complicated. Mitterrand ultimately toyed with his conquest, alternately pleasing, teasing, confusing, and fascinating her with the many labyrinthine corridors of his soul. Although France eventually became resentful of Mitterrand, she could never fully express it. He was profoundly ill, with cancer, when she found out about his many deceptions and betrayals, and he died soon after his 14-year run as head of state ended. The result was a confused mourning that made it hard for France to learn from the relationship's dysfunctions.
But France learned something: She would never fall so passionately for anyone again. Her broad idealism would never recover. She would have fun, but she wouldn't ever love again. In 1995, she hooked up with a good-time guy, Jacques Chirac. He was a likable enough guy, but with readily apparent flaws, and he said anything to get her into bed. Chirac was a bit like the good-natured but persistent guy at the end of the bar at closing time who just keeps talking. After putting up plenty of resistance, she went for it. Early on, she told herself, Chirac still exuded an air of the matinee idol, if not quite holding onto the looks of his youth.