Social democrat François Hollande, president of France from 2012 to 2017, was in Brussels on Tuesday. He not only looked back on his eventful presidency, but also shed light on the political situation in his country. And about the war in Gaza, of course. ‘Israel really goes to the brink. This cannot continue. And certainly not longer than the end of November.’
High visitors on Tuesday at The Merode. The chic Brussels business club, housed in the 17th-century Hôtel de Mérode on Place Poelaert, received the former French president François Hollande (69) for a conference and lunch.
The socialist François Hollande was president of France from 2012 to 2017. As president, Hollande legalized gay marriage, kept Greece in the eurozone, refused to sell French aircraft carriers to Russian President Putin (which came under sharp criticism at the time, but with the knowledge was now a visionary), and guided his country after the traumatizing attacks Charlie Hebdo and in Paris and Nice. Yet Hollande was the least popular president the Fifth French Republic has ever had. At the end of his mandate, 14 percent of French people still supported him. The intelligent, erudite and witty president, who opted for a ‘normal’ presidency after the bling bling of his right-wing predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, turned out to be completely devoid of charisma.
Well, normal. Hollande did spectacularly make the cover of the French gossip magazine Closer. The president, who was officially dating a French journalist at the time, was photographed crossing Paris on a scooter to secretly meet his new love, the actress Julie Gayet. He has now married her.
François Hollande was in Brussels to promote his book published last year Bouleversements (‘upheavals’), a geopolitical analysis of the new world order, interspersed with memories of his presidency.
While Giorgia Meloni has to govern with a coalition government in Italy, the far right in France can come to power all by itself.
The round tables in the glass extension of the stately historic building are well filled with Brussels and French beau monde before his arrival. At the central table, wherever that may be later monsieur le president will take a seat, the prince de Mérode, the owner of the building. Countless waiters walk back and forth with large trays full of champagne, quickly serving men in suits and women with designer handbags. Hollande and his limited entourage arrive with more than half an hour delay. After joking about the favorable reception – ‘if I ever aspire to a political position again, I will hire the director of The Merode to do my promotion’ – Hollande outlines the message of his book in broad terms.
Hollande sees the year 2012 as a turning point. Not because he was elected president that year, but because Vladimir Putin was re-elected in Russia and Xi Jinping became the new president of China. According to Hollande, Putin was already in revenge mode, ‘a kind of vindictive victimhood’, against the United States and the West, which allegedly collapsed the old Soviet empire and surrounded today’s Russia. ‘Putin wants to prove the supremacy of autocratic regimes over democracies. Xi Jinping wants to make China the dominant world power. Putin and Xi believe a new era has dawned for authoritarian regimes and other empires. They see Western democracies as weak, divided and decadent,” Hollande says. In the confrontation between democracy and tyranny, democracy is losing, the former president continues, because it is also threatened from within by the rise of populism.
Europe cannot rely on the US for its security. That makes us vulnerable.
Hollande knew Putin well. Together with then German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for whom Hollande has a lot of admiration and affection, he negotiated with Putin in 2015 about the Minsk agreement, a truce in Ukraine that had long been in tatters – ‘but in which the territorial integrity of Ukraine at least remained intact ‘. He sees three major geopolitical trends today. ‘The alliance between Russia and China, which rejects the West and democracy. The rise of the global South, a very diverse group of countries that all want to have a bigger say, partly because of their strong demography. And intensified religious or civilizational conflicts, led by countries such as Iran, which are arming Hamas, for example.’
The West had better brace itself, thinks the former president, who, in good French tradition, is a strong supporter of a strong European defense. ‘What about support for Ukraine if Donald Trump becomes American president again? Europe cannot rely on the US for its security. That makes us vulnerable.’
Hollande peppers his argument with anecdotes. About Xi Jinping, who asked him casually during their first meeting how many inhabitants France has – as if Xi did not know that. “I tried to stretch the number of French people as much as possible and say that in a few years we could be approaching 80 million,” Hollande laughs. About top politicians and superstition: ‘De Gaulle had the future predicted, Mitterrand consulted a fortune teller. I didn’t have any of that. So I only had myself to blame.”
De Gaulle had the future predicted, Mitterrand consulted a fortune teller. I didn’t have any of that. I had only myself to blame.
After the three-course lunch there will be time for questions from the audience. Why Putin, who initially seemed to be seeking rapprochement with Europe, has completely turned around, a French woman wants who works for the European Commission. “Putin is patient and knows how to choose his opportunity,” Hollande explains. He refers to an episode in his book in which he is quite critical of American President Barack Obama. An intellectual and particularly charismatic, but according to Hollande also a cold figure, with a condescending attitude towards Europe. A crucial moment is when, in August 2013, Hollande, together with Obama, decides to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad militarily. “The international community is now certain that Assad used chemical weapons against his own citizens. Everything was ready for an intervention,” Hollande says. ‘But at the very last minute, Obama called to say that he first wanted to ask for support from the American Congress. That ended the operation. That has had a global impact. From then on, Putin came to believe that he could go about his business anywhere undisturbed.’
Someone else wants to know whether the reprisals by the Israeli army in Gaza after the bloody attack by Hamas are still proportionate. Hollande, who has been warning of rising anti-Semitism in France since the start of the war, emphasized Israel’s right to self-defense and encouraged relatives of French hostages in Gaza in the French Senate, is now calling for (at least) a temporary humanitarian ceasefire. He weighs his words. “Hamas is primarily responsible for what is going on. But Europe and the US must draw a clear line on the time and scale of Israeli military actions in Gaza. Israel really goes to the brink here. This cannot continue. And certainly not longer than the end of November.’
Finally, someone wants to know whether the far-right Marine Le Pen, who continues to do very well in the polls, has a chance of becoming the next president of France, now that Emmanuel Macron is in his second and therefore last mandate. Hollande considers this ‘possible’, and attributes that possibility to ‘the yawning void in the political center in France’.
His own PS was almost wiped out in the previous national elections and left the left-wing alliance NUPES three weeks ago after a conflict over Hamas – ‘a good thing, the PS must break away from the extreme left’. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the political leader of the radical left La France Insoumise, the linchpin of NUPES, refuses to call Hamas a terrorist organization, to the consternation of the PS.
“The traditional parties on the centre-left and centre-right have collapsed in France,” says Hollande. ‘In that political vacuum, Marine Le Pen seems to be the only alternative to Macron.’ Now many European member states are dealing with a strong right-wing radical political factor, he continues. ‘But the big difference is that France has presidential elections. While Giorgia Meloni has to govern with a coalition government in Italy, the far right in France can come to power all by itself.’
The former French president is not keen on a return to active politics at the moment. Unless from a distance, to support a new broad, centre-left political project. Otherwise, as a privileged observer, he will continue to write books, participate in the public debate, and further develop his foundation for vulnerable young people.