What Do They Call a “Normal” President?

François Hollande.
Photo: Flickr.com/jmayrault

FEATURE – It could have gone completely unnoticed, but, unlike ever before, the word “normal” occupied the political arena during the presidential campaign, and it has yet to extricate itself. It is now highly probable that François Hollande, newly elected president of France, will remain connected to his image as the “normal president” through his five years as President.

The idea  became a recurring issue in the media, recently doubling the number headlines about how maintaining the image of a ‘normal’ president would be difficult for François Hollande, particularly since the opposition has been relentless in their attacks the president and his colleagues regarding their drive to be “normal”. However, the notion itself, given its common colloquial use, is seldom questioned, even within the political sphere, but the manifestation of this idea as a political platform begs the question of the appropriateness of normalcy in this context.

It is not enough just to ask whether being normal is possible for a president: is normality compatible with the role’s function?

The first question is: what does “normal” mean in this case? Did François Hollande anticipate the spreading of that word? Did he really intend to imply a meaning beyond what, on the surface, some viewed to be a mere political tactic?

The attacks from the Right are generally two-pronged. The primary argument is that France does not need a “normal” President. A president must have something extraordinary about him, as the role of President requires. In times of crisis, a “normal” president would be a burden for the country. Under this argument, being normal appears to mean having only average skills, which detrimental for the leader of a nation.

Additionally, they say a president cannot behave like a “normal” citizen. It is strictly impossible for a President to live what could be called a “simple life”, a life that any unknown person lives. As a consequence, the French President, just like other notable people, should accept and accordingly deal with his popularity and the life that he has chosen to live. Taking the metro, or the train, hounded by journalists and photographers, should not be an option for him anymore.

These criticisms raise important issues, but they also highlight how vague the word “normal” can be, which probably explains why it was, and is, so easily used by every party in the political spectrum. Hollande certainly never meant that he did not have the skills to be President, and one must remember that he attended three major French universities (HEC, Science Po and ENA) and forged a stunning political career which has lead him to his current position.

It is also doubtful that he intended to live unnoticed either. It might sound obvious, but one does not run for president without being aware that he will become a public figure.

For Hollande and his staff, being normal often meant being able to identify with “normal” French people who are his constituents. The election of the French president draws the most attention from the French citizens compared to any other governmental election in the county and the post is the highest in the Constitution of the 5th Republic. However, this very prestige can be viewed as a problem within the structure of a democracy.  It can reveal a discrepancy between the people, whose sovereignty is supposed to be the origin of all political power, and those who represent and govern them. It is therefore important to reduce that unavoidable gap, by giving the impression that Hollande can talk with people easily and spontaneously. Being “normal” does not mean being an average citizen, and because of the nature of presidential power and it cannot mean that the president should appear as an average citizen either. “Normality” seems to be more a question of openness and the availability that a mere “representative” owes to his people.

Who is the average citizen? Beyond statistics, one cannot draw the portrait of the average citizen; this is an abstract which doesn’t exist. Normality, under that perspective, cannot be properly defined.

Sociologically speaking, it is also true that most of the active members in politics are far from “average citizens” and belong more or less to the privileged and elite parts of the French society. François Hollande cannot possibly make his citizens forget that fact, which is often condemned by extreme parties on the right and left. Hollande needs to find a balance between the “I am just like you”, which would by itself sound deeply populist, and the essential “I am the leader you need”, without positioning himself too high above those who put him in power.

The new political style the President and his team have chosen needs definition and substance to be politically effective. They need to make sure that the possibility of identifying the negative connotations with “normalcy” does not outweigh the positive aspects for which they are aiming. In this case, François Hollande chose the perfect foil: Nicolas Sarkozy, who was seen by many as overly exploiting the superiority of the Presidential post. In a pure Manichean fashion, François Hollande, as main challenger against the former French president, attacked every characteristic of Sarkozy’s personality as antitheses of his own.

Nicolas Sarkozy was criticized for his “flashy” style of governing and was dubbed the “bling-bling” President by the French media. He received the nickname because of his rich associates: friends who are the bosses of several major French companies, who had a habit of inviting him on expensive vacations, for instance a highly controversial yacht trip right after his 2007 win. At the opposite end of the spectrum, being “normal” for François Hollande meant looking sedate, unconcerned by money, and aimed to give off the impression that he was focused instead on leading a nation.

Even if the way Sarkozy was attacked on his acquaintances can be seen as questionable, it is true that he created a style of the Presidency which, beyond mere politics, gathered many French against him. This reluctance towards Sarkozy’s so-called ‘love for money’ and ‘lack of culture’ revealed, by contrast, what the French considered a “normal” president: an almost monarchical figure, highly educated and with the skills and attitude of an experienced orator. In other words, a “normal” president for the French was a member of the cultural elite, of the modern aristocracy. Interestingly similar to the ancient Greeks who considered elections to be the most aristocratic way of selecting someone for a function because the voters look for distinctive and educated personalities for their leaders.

Here lies a paradox, especially for the country who is so proud of her anti-monarchical regime. Indeed, Nicolas Sarkozy was probably more “normal” than any of the presidents of the 5th Republic. His popular ways of speaking and behaving, as well as his common tastes in terms of cultural references, cinema for example, played a positive role in his election in 2007. The candidate Sarkozy might have been closer to the people than any candidate has ever been.  He also never attended the prestigious and almost elitest schools that Hollande attended.

It is important to remember the previous presidents of the 5th Republic in order to understand this contradiction.

The 5th Republic was designed by General De Gaulle, who imposed the lasting image of a strong and detached leader to the executive office. His successors, no matter their political views, stuck more or less to that model, in their own way. This French disposition to love fatherly yet impressive figures might explain the enduring attraction for personalities like Dominique de Villepin, who, despite the media attention, never managed to be candidate for the presidential elections. Every norm is established by comparison to a sample of examples. Being a “normal” president then means staying in the direct line of the other leaders of the 5th Republic, not necessarily “normal” compared to the common frenchman.

Amidst a campaign sprinkled with aggressive sentences and personal attacks, François Hollande remained relatively calm, reluctant to be as dirty as other candidates or public figures  and it likely played in his favor. His strategy was most evident during the debate with Nicolas Sarkozy before the second round of the presidential elections. Hollande’s anaphoric monologue now entitled “Moi, Président…”, drew the attention to him, and highlighted the flaws in Sarkozy’s personality.

“I, President of the Republic, I will not be the chief of the majority only (…)

I, President of the Republic, I will not call my Prime Minister a mere colleague (…)

I, President of the Republic, I will leave the courts to work in an independent way (…)

I, President of the Republic, I will endeavor to behave in exemplary fashion at every instant (…)

I, President of the Republic, I will try to see things from a higher perspective (…)”

It was then clear how Hollande’s normality cannot be reduced to a mere closeness to the people. Hollande built his own style in clear opposition to his predecessor’s, who was often accused of being a “hyper-president”, taking over the leadership from the other offices of the administration, including the Prime Minister.

Ultimately, Hollande showcased his political skills and naturally promised that he would be the opposite of Nicolas Sarkozy, reminding the French of their traditional and enduring idea of a President.


  1. This writing has inspired me to continue working on my own blog

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