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Hollande at the Hotel de Ville after being sworn in as president on Tuesday morning. (Courtesy Reuters)
Last Sunday, for only the second time in the history of the Fifth Republic, France elected a Socialist president. François Hollande -- who was sworn in on Tuesday -- is quite different from his Socialist predecessor, François Mitterrand, and the times are different as well. Mitterrand created the modern Socialist Party in 1969, and his victory for "the people of the left" was projected as a "rupture" with the Gaullist foundation of the Fifth Republic. In retrospect, it also represented the final act that legitimated the republic itself. Hollande served as the longtime secretary-general of the Socialist Party, and that modest role speaks to the similarly modest objectives that he has announced for his presidency.
As I argued in an essay prior to the election, Hollande is committed to negotiating broad changes in the European austerity pact, changes that will build in instruments for economic growth. For France, he is also committed to preserving at least some of the key achievements of the Mitterrand years and of previous Socialist governments. He has pledged to preserve the retirement age of 60, to increase the number of teachers and police, and to use state funds to subsidize job creation. This increase in spending, he argues, will be paid for by an increase in taxation on the wealthy. He has also vowed to submit legislation that would give immigrants (third-country nationals, that is, not citizens of an EU country) the right to vote in local elections, a Mitterrand-era pledge that was never fulfilled.
On the other hand, in the run-up to the second round of voting, Hollande's position on immigration hardened considerably. In a gesture to National Front sympathizers, he vowed to "reunite the French people." More concretely, he pledged to limit economic immigration by legislating each year the number of applicants for work visas who would be accepted (proposed by the Sarkozy government last year, but never enacted). He also committed to unflinching support for laïcité (the separation of church and state) and to a more muscular approach to asylum cases and undocumented immigrants.
Hollande's ability to fulfill these commitments, however, depends on the results of the upcoming legislative elections, which are slated for June. The results of the presidential voting revealed an electorate more or less evenly divided between right and left. Nevertheless, there are several indications that the Socialists and the left are going into the elections with strong, if not overwhelming, advantages.
Despite the party's impressively weak leadership, since 2008 voters have increasingly favored the Socialists. They scored strong gains in local elections in 2008, made sweeping wins in the regional elections of 2010, and then triumphed again in the departmental elections last year. In part as a result of these victories, they gained control of the indirectly elected French Senate last year, for the first time under the Fifth Republic.
Second, surveys indicate that an overwhelming majority of voters (of both Hollande and Sarkozy) would like to see a legislative majority favorable to the president of the Republic. Post-election analysis shows that Hollande won in 333 of the 577 electoral constituencies in France. Finally, there is the strong challenge by the National Front to the Gaullist Union for a Popular Movement (the party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy). If this challenge is as strong as some predict, it will divide the votes of the right in the second round in more than 300 constituencies.
Therefore, the important question does not seem to be whether the left will win but how large the Socialist-left majority will be. And that would leave open the possibility -- should the loss be sufficiently severe -- to provoke a restructuring of the French parties of the right, which would favor a strengthened radical-right National Front.