France’s Fifth Republic has often been described as an elective monarchy. Late last year, it witnessed its first abdication: President François Hollande, whose approval rating had sunk to the low single digits, announced that he would not be running for a second term in the elections this spring. Hollande is the first president of the Fifth Republic not to at least attempt to succeed himself. But the republican monarchy was in trouble long before its feckless incumbent, elected in 2012, acknowledged what everyone else already knew: His reign had ended long before he finally mustered the resolve to renounce the throne, which has always been wrapped in a certain mystique.
It was the poet Charles Péguy who wrote that “tout commence en mystique et finit en politique”—everything begins in mystery and ends in politics. The thought encapsulates the history of the Fifth Republic, which Charles de Gaulle created in his own image in 1958. The regime he founded would come to divide its executive function between a president vested with extensive powers and a prime minister responsible to the Parliament, which can be dissolved by the president at will.
Political scientists call this type of regime, with its divided executive, “semi-presidential.” For de Gaulle, reared on Catholic thought, it was something more: a division of the political realm into two distinct domains, the one sacred and mystical, the other profane and political. The sacred was reserved for the chef de l’État, while the profane was consigned to the chef du gouvernement. (In French, “State” is always capitalized while “government” is not, marking a clear hierarchy.) The prime minister’s role was to navigate rough political waters; the president’s, to walk on them.
No president after de Gaulle could fully sustain this mystique, least of all Hollande. Months before the 2012 election, a leading French political theorist told me: “Hollande singularly lacks the ability to incarnate the presidency.” Though “incarnate” is an odd word to hear in a political context, it epitomizes the underlying Gaullist theology: The chef de l’État must transcend the political parties while simultaneously dominating them.
Hollande, who spent much of his career immersed in day-to-day politics as leader of the Socialist Party, has never been capable of walking on water. One rival compared him, rather, to “the captain of a pedal boat.” Yet such facile mockery trivializes a failure that is more instructive if patiently analyzed rather than derisively dismissed. The upcoming election will turn on the question of why Hollande failed. Was it because he was not a good captain, or because he charted the wrong course—one that kept France tied to Germany at the center of the European Union and committed to the EU’s principles of free movement for capital, goods, and people?
As a navigator, Hollande was sure of his destination. It was the same one that the German Social Democratic Party had set for itself at Bad Godesberg in 1959: to reform capitalism rather than replace it. To get there, Hollande relied on two Socialist Party mentors, François Mitterrand and Jacques Delors. Mitterrand taught him how to conquer power; Delors explained what he could and could not do with it, given the rival or hostile forces with which he’d have to compromise— notwithstanding the shrill insistence of voices both left and right that compromise is never necessary.