The Mitterrand palimpsest

FRANÇOIS MITTERRAND WAS around for so long (he first held office in 1944-5) and got up to so many things, almost every year is some sort of Mitterrand anniversary. My regular reader will know that I’m something of an obsessive about the former French president and don’t need much excuse to write about him. This year I will have plenty – 2016 marks not only 20 years since Mitterrand’s death, but also the centenary of his birth, in the market town of Jarnac, deep in the Cognac country of south-west France, on 26 October 1916.

I already have a stack of Mitterrand-related reading on my desk, including a new book on the president’s last days by the editor of L’Express, Christophe Barbier, and Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s dauntingly huge 1996 biography, François Mitterrand: une vie, which I’ve promised myself to finally get round to reading this year. But I was drawn first to Georges-Marc Benamou’s Le Dernier Mitterrand, the book on which Robert Guédiguian’s celebrated 2005 film on the president’s last days in office, The Last Mitterrand, was based. I’ve watched this film so many times that Michel Bouquet’s superb portrayal of the president has largely displaced my memories of the real Mitterrand.

Benamou was the Globe journalist given “unprecedented access” to Mitterrand during his last year as president, and the rather sad eight-month coda to his life after he left office (actually, quite a few people claim to have had such access – Barbier among them – I guess Mitterrand didn’t like being alone much). There’s a scene in Benamou’s book which doesn’t feature in the film – surprisingly, because it seems to capture the essence of the Mitterrand mystique. It’s certainly made a big impression on me. I can’t get it out of my head. I can picture the scene from the film even though I know it isn’t there.

Mitterrand starts speaking enigmatically – even madly – about an “unknown war” with America, a “a permanent war, a war without death, apparently” but which is also “a war to the death”. Mitterrand seems to imply that although the war is “permanent”, it is a war that France – and Europe – have already lost. It doesn’t make much sense but, as the president continues talking, Benamou senses that he is no longer talking just as himself, but as all his predecessors.

Benamou claims to sense De Gaulle’s tone, and then those of other French leaders stretching back into the middle ages. The image he cites is a striking one: a photo-montage by the artist Krystof Pruszkowski, a sort of visual palimpsest in which portraits of all the Fifth Republic presidents up to that point — De Gaulle, Pompidou, Giscard and Mitterrand — are superimposed on one another. This was the ghostly figure, Benamou says, who was speaking to him in that darkened room at the Elysée in October 1994.

I managed to dig up a copy of the picture (I don’t have the rights to post it here) and spent some time staring at it. Benamou is right: you can recognise features from all four men, but the only people you really see are De Gaulle and Mitterrand.

Benamou felt that all France’s past leaders were incarnated in this frail body, this “national corpse” (Mitterrand was dying from prostate cancer, which it was later revealed he’d been suffering from since at least 1981). And that Mitterrand is the last in the line, the last real leader of France, perhaps the last real political leader in Europe. Mitterrand says something similar elsewhere in the book (and in the film): “I’m the last of the line, the last of the great presidents. After me there will just be managers, technocrats, bankers.” This extinguishing of politics is perhaps what Mitterrand means by the war Europe has lost.

Mitterrand’s point was overblown – you can’t say that Chirac was just a manager or that Sarkozy was a techno-anything, although Hollande – ironically, a Mitterrand protégé – fits the mould perfectly. But Mitterrand does now look like the last of the big, ambitious political leaders in Europe. By 1995, he was the last significant politician of the wartime generation still in office. If the past is recoverable at all, it’s through the people who lived in it. When they are gone, the way back becomes fogged. We are working with ghosts – and ghosts are unreliable and personal to each and every one of us.

The past is the ultimate mystery, the ultimate fantasy world. (How can it be here, in so many forms all around us, and yet not be? How weird is that?) The easiest way to access this fantasy world is through the people we knew and loved. Our memories of them become entwined with the ghosts of public figures and our knowledge of the times in which they lived. I tend to conflate memories of my Dad with stories of people like Mitterrand and Denis Healey, because they lived through the same period and went through many of the same experiences. They are all characters in my own fantasy story of the 20th century – a time which is gone, but which refuses to settle down and feels like it will never be still.

For years, I have carried around a story in my head: my Dad, shortly after going into the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp with the Royal Artillery in 1945, encounters a bossy French official called François, who has arrived in haste from Paris. The story takes different forms (in one they argue about access to a toilet, in another they get drunk on Courvoisier), but I’ve always believed it was spun around a core of truth: that Dad and Mitterrand were at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, possibly on the same day (Mitterrand was the French official responsible for repatriating French prisoners from the concentration camps).

I can’t remember now whether the story comes from something my Dad told me (it isn’t there in the extensive notes I took shortly before he died in 2009), a dream, something I read about Mitterrand, or whether I just made the whole thing up. That’s how the past works on us – endless versions, real and imagined, and most a mixture of the two, superimposed on one another: a rich soup of memories, facts and fantasies, spiked with that sense of unbearable loss.

But reading Benamou’s book, I’ve now know that Mitterrand never went to Bergen-Belsen at all, although he was present at the liberation of Dachau by the Americans in the same month. Even though I’ve seen the film countless times, I’d missed the fact that the camp Mitterrand describes was Dachau, not Belsen. I’d believed it because I wanted to; it fitted with my storybook version of the past.

In the same way, my version of French history, and of Mitterrand’s presidency, will be different to yours – much of mine comes from that film and what I’ve projected onto it. Just as I was disappointed to find out that the history of Imperial Rome didn’t unfold the way I saw it as a child in I Claudius (no, Augustus wasn’t at all like Brian Blessed), no doubt all this Mitterrand reading will dispel more of my illusions. But it will only replace them with others: a fresh set of fantasies to weave into my personal version of what we call “the truth”.

In my head, two men still emerge hand-in-hand from the mist on that April morning on the North German Plain. I know one of them well enough. I may never get to know the other. So I can make of him whatever I will.

Photo: Jacques Paillette/Creative Commons 3.0

It’s complicated

LONDON, MONDAY: People often feel the most profound question they can ask after a senseless killing is “why”? It speaks not only to bafflement faced with the apparent meaningless of the particular act, but also to our more existential need to find explanations for the things that happen to us and around us, and ultimately our search for a meaning for life (and death) itself.

On Saturday afternoon, someone unfurled a huge banner in Paris’s Place de la République saying, “Pourquoi?” Perhaps the literal translation, “for what”, is better here than “why”. Because “why” doesn’t seem a particularly useful question to ask about something like the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The killers would have no difficultly answering it, and we know more or less what they would say. “For what?” or “to what end?” would be a more difficult question and a truthful answer would be revealing. What these people wanted could range from the utterly delusional (a global Islamic caliphate), through the implausible (civil war in France) to the much more terrifyingly possible (permanent alienation between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Europe). My gut feeling is that jihadist “leaders” will tend towards the more realistic (and dangerous) end of that spectrum; the actual killers are more likely to be delusional in their motives. But who knows?

Rather than (metaphorically) asking the killers why they did it, we might more usefully ask ourselves why these people think so differently to us. Why do they not recognise and respect free speech? Why do they not see religious observance as a private matter and not something to be imposed on other people? Why do they see ISIL’s statelet in Syria and Iraq, where life is indeed “nasty, brutish and short”, as preferable to free, prosperous and cultured France? Why do they believe evident fantasies? Why do they believe them with such fervour that they are prepared to kill for them? And why do they hold their own lives so cheap?

This has nothing to do with responsibility for the killings, which rest squarely with the gunmen and those who aided, abetted and encouraged them. But when we start to look at why they thought they way they did, it ought to be clear that the responsibility for that is much wider.

We might look at the characteristics and training of imams in French mosques, at the responsibilities of parents and the care system involved in their upbringing, at the way radical Islamism functions as a nihilist death cult, with a particular appeal to alienated and psychologically disturbed youth. We might also look at the French prison system (two of the Paris gunmen were apparently further “radicalised” at the notorious Fleury-Mérogis prison south of Paris, though it didn’t start there), at the way “ordinary” Muslim criminals are rehabilitated, at the culture of the banlieus (the often-desolate suburban zones that ring most large French cities), at youth unemployment, ghettoisation on housing estates, even mental health services. The list could go on and on, but we can’t simply walk away from this and pretend that having people who are primarily and viscerally motivated by a hatred for the society they live in has nothing to do with the way that society works.

If we hadn’t realised it before, the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Casher attacks have revealed that violent jihadism, particularly in Western countries, is an extremely complex problem with many, many causes. There are religious and geopolitical aspects, of course, but also personal and psychological ones. Many of the jihadist terrorists who have perpetrated atrocities in Western countries seem to show signs of psychological disturbance. A 2002 court psychiatric report on the Hyper Casher gunman, Amédy Coulibaly, found an “immature and psychopathic personality” (and one thing jihadist terrorists seem to have in common is an enormous capacity for self-delusion). It could be that this, combined with a sense of racial and religious grievance, instruction from manipulative and “hate-filled” preachers (such as the Kouachi brothers’ “guru” Faris Benyettou), connections with “ordinary” criminal gangs into drugs and petty theft, and a sense of nihilism and alienation to set against the perverted glamour of killing and dying for a cause, produces this murderous cocktail. Or it could be even more complicated than that.

It’s not good enough to pin everything on mass immigration or the impossibility of different traditions living side by side. It’s not good enough to put it all down to handful of “radical imams” and internet “hate preachers”. Still less to common criminality. But neither is it good enough to blame it all on George Bush’s invasion of Iraq and poverty and unemployment on bleak housing estates.

All these factors and more need to be carefully unpicked and dealt with, both ruthlessly and sensitively (a difficult but not impossible balancing act). Are we up to it? We will have to be.

A new Bambi or a new Speedy in the Matignon?

Manuel Valls, France’s new prime minister, is often compared to Tony Blair. He even describes himself, without apparent irony, as “Blairiste”. Surprisingly, this hasn’t done him much harm. In recent months, Valls has emerged from relative obscurity to become by far the most popular member of France’s embattled Socialist government.

Manuel Valls in the Assemblée Nationale, 2012

Manuel Valls, France’s new PM, combines Sarkozy-style aggression with a Blairite tendancy to face both ways at once.

Like Blair, he comes from the right of a left-wing party. Like Blair, it’s the issue of crime that brought Valls to political prominence. Blair made his name with his “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” slogan as shadow home secretary in the early 1990s. As interior minister since 2012, Valls has revelled in his role as France’s premier flic (‘top cop’), and ruffled the feathers of his socialist comrades with his generally hawkish approach to crime and immigration. And like Blair, Valls likes preaching the virtues of free market capitalism to a party that remains very suspicious of its vices.

Valls was even endorsed by the free marketeers’ house rag, The Economist (also an early fan of Blair’s) when he ran for president in 2012. This didn’t impress Parti Socialiste activists much: he got just 6% of the vote in the party’s primary

To me, a more useful comparison would be with Hollande’s predecessor as president, Nicolas Sarkozy. Valls’s energetic, media-savvy image, evokes Sarkozy’s time as interior minister under Jacques Chirac, when he earned the nickname “Speedy”. Valls has enthusiastically adopted Sarkozy’s ultra-aggressive style. Hollande, announcing his appointment on Monday night, was playing this up when he said Valls’s administration would be ‘a government for combat’.

Both as mayor of the depressed Paris suburb of Evry (Essonne) and as interior minister, Valls has endorsed — and even stepped up — Sarkozy’s policies on immigration and crime.

Valls took a lot of flak over his support for cops in their heavy-handed deportation of a 15-year-old Kosovan schoolgirl from France last year. Tough new immigration rules and quotas, introduced by Valls, build more in Sarkozy’s legacy than Socialist Party principle. His remarks on Roma people — “these people have ways of life extremely different to ours”, and claims that it was impossible for most Roma to integrate into France, echo similarly controversial remarks by the former president.

(Interestingly, like Sarkozy, Valls is of foreign origin himself. Sarkozy was famously the son of Hungarian immigrants, while Valls is a Catalan, born in Barcelona, who did not become a French citizen until he was 20.)

Valls’s appointment sets the seal on Hollande’s “tournant social-démocrate”, his supposed shift towards pro-market and austerity-based solutions to France’s economic woes. While Valls is hard to pin down on economics (he’s certainly more “left”, as we Brits would understand it, than Tony Blair, although not necessarily more so than Sarkozy) there’s no doubt Valls is a more credible frontman for Hollande’s “responsibility pact” — his pledge to cut France’s deficit in line with EU demands — than the outgoing Jean-Marc Ayrault.

Valls is an enthusiast for austerity. He has supported the idea — floated by Sarkozy himself — of enshrining the need for a balanced budget (France hasn’t had one since 1974) in the French constitution. Valls’s enthusiasm for “TVA sociale” — shifting some of France’s social insurance charges onto VAT — is another a policy which finds more favour in Sarkozy’s party than his own.

Nicolas Sarkozy during the 2012 presidential campaign.

Sarkozy’s energy and ambition made him a thorn in Jacques Chirac’s side towards the end of his presidency.

He has also been critical of France’s 35-hour working week, introduced by Lionel Jospin’s Socialist government in 1998, which remains a talismanic policy for many French Socialists. The policy was also a frequent target of Sarkozy’s ire, although he never got round to doing much more than moaning about it. In true Blairite style, Valls talks about “flexisecurité” — a vague and meaningless blend of protection against unemployment and making it easier to sack people.

The appointment is not without risks for Hollande. Valls is loathed by many on the centre and left of the PS and has little real power base in the party. The Greens have threatened to leave the government over his appointment. And everyone knows, like Sarkozy, Valls is murderously ambitious.

Sarkozy’s noisy campaigning for the presidency was a constant pain in the backside for Chirac after the president passed over his interior minister and appointed the donnish Dominique de Villepin as prime minister in 2005.

In sending Valls to the Matignon, Hollande has perhaps been shrewder, and tied Valls’s political fortunes to his own. Yes, the president has a big problem in 2017 if his ambitious prime minister is successful. But he has an even bigger one if he isn’t.

The strange afterlife of François Mitterrand

mitterrand_hat_1995François Mitterrand, French president between 1981 and 1995, died 16 years ago. Well, so they say. But turn on French radio or TV, look around a bookshop, or scan the feature pages of a French paper, and old Tonton is still with us.

Perhaps it all started with Robert Guédiguian’s remarkable 2005 film about the president’s final days, The Last Mitterrand (available with English subtitles on DVD). It was certainly given impeteus by the thirtieth anniversary of Mitterrand’s election last year, when Olivier Py’s play Adagio (subtitled ‘Mitterrand: secrets and death’) opened to packed houses in Paris’s Théâtre de l’Odéon. There are dozens of books about Mitterrand, both factual and fictional, and most a mixture of the two.

Mitterrand is summoned like a spectre in almost all political debate, his name mentioned more often than most living politicians (yes – hands up – just search this blog). Nicholas Sarkozy was said to be obsessed with him. Even with Hollande in the Élysée, the French Socialist party still feels like a family shorn of a dominant father. Last year, Florence Pavaux-Drory, Mitterrand’s biographer and one-time adviser – and an avowed atheist – told France 24: ‘Mitterrand is still our model and our leader – at least our spiritual leader. We feel the energy of Mitterrand is still with us.’

Antoine Laurain’s Le Chapeau de Mitterrand (Flammarion 2012) adds more mist to the mill of mystique around the former president. Set during the mid-80s, it’s a set of charming stories about four middle-class people (none of them natural Mitterrand supporters) who successively come into possession of the president’s lost hat. The hat, one of Mitterrand’s favoured black narrow-brimmed fedoras, mysteriously seems to confer on them some of the president’s élan, his gravitas, his genorosity of spirit and, in one or two cases, more than a little of the low cunning that Sarkozy so admired. Each has their life turned around while sporting the presidential titfer and comes to believe that it – and somehow Mitterrand himself – is responsible. The president himself makes only fleeting appearances at the beginning and the end of the book, where the stories culminate in a wicked twist that manages to be both touching and sinister at the same time.

Can you imagine a similar novel about any recent British political figure? Harold’s Pipe or Major’s Underpants, anyone? But it works beautifully with Mitterrand, who even in life moved in mysterious ways. His past was not so much a closed book as a palimpsest on which so many different versions were written that even now it’s impossible to discern anything as mundane as the truth: how deep was he in with Vichy? What did he really do in the Resistance? Did he set up the failed 1959 assassination attempt on himself? We still don’t really know.


But there’s more to it than that. The man is a ghost in the only real sense of the word. His slow death from prostate cancer, which he battled through his second term (and which it was later revealed he was already suffering from in 1981), gave him an air of tragic destiny which both repelled and fascinated the French. The sheer length of his career – he was first a minister in 1944 – his frequent comebacks, his links back to the Resistance, to Vichy and the Third Republic, made him seem eternal. And then, of course, he was so very French: a gourmet, a bibliophile, a philanderer with a secret daughter. In a country that likes to see itself incarnated in ambiguous historical figures (Jeanne d’Arc, Napoleon, De Gaulle etc), Mitterrand is slowly being petrified into part of France itself.

In his last New Year message as president, just a year before he died, the atheist Mitterrand turned towards the camera and, the trace of a smile about his thin lips, said: ‘I believe in the forces of the spirit, and I will never leave you.’

It’s spooky to watch. People have puzzled for 16 years over what he meant by this. But he knew. And now so do we.

  • ‘Le Chapeau de Mitterrand’ will be published in English as ‘Mitterrand’s Hat’ by Gallic press in 2013.

Who is François Hollande?

One of his cabinet colleagues once dubbed him ‘Flamby’, after a French brand of wobbly custard pudding. A member of his own campaign team called him a ‘marshmallow’. Even the mother of his four children, the 2007 presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, said he had ‘achieved nothing’ in 30 years of public life.

But François Hollande is President of the Republic and they are not. So is he a ‘dangerous man’, as the right-wing British magazine The Economist claims, or just ‘the captain of pedalo in a storm’, as the far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon quipped during the 2012 campaign? Dunno. The only thing I can say with certainty after 500-odd pages of Serge Raffy’s Le President is: don’t underestimate François Hollande.

Hollande combines undoubted ambition with a kind of patient fatalism and the tenacity of a dog with a marrow-filled bone. When he was 15, ‘with neither arrogance nor megalomania’, he calmly told a friends’ father: ‘I will be President of the Republic’. At the 1981 elections, heeding François Mitterrand’s advice to establish himself a political base in the provinces, he turned up in Corrèze, an unpromising rural area in central France, to challenge none other than Jacques Chirac in his own backyard. Mocked by Chirac as ‘less well-known than Mitterrand’s labrador’, Hollande failed to make the second round.

It took him seven years to get elected to anything in the département. Most other ambitious politicos would have bagged the experience and moved on, but Hollande stuck to his self-appointed task. Corrèze is now Hollande’s backyard and one of the most secure political bastions in France. Even Chirac votes for Hollande now.

‘One only emerges from ambiguity to one’s detriment,’ Mitterrand is supposed to have been fond of saying, and this is another piece of the old man’s advice that Hollande seems to have taken to heart. Throughout his career, Hollande has seemed reluctant to emerge from the shadows of his political father figures. A man who had an atrocious relationship with his own father – a fascist sympathiser – he moved between the grands hommes of the French left like an itinerant stepson, always looking up to, but ending up slightly disappointed by, his chosen mentor.

As well as Mitterrand himself, there was Jacques Delors, who let Hollande down by chickening out of running for the presidency in 1995 (as he’d ducked out of facing Chirac in Corrèze in 1981, allowing Hollande to step in at the last minute), and the donnish Lionel Jospin, with whom his relationship deteriorated so badly the two men almost came to blows during Jospin’s disastrous 2002 campaign (yes, it’s hard to imagine two more unlikely protagonists in a fist-fight). Another political hero (interestingly shared with Chirac) is Henri Queuille: a Corrèze politician of vaguely leftist convictions who, despite being prime minister of France three times in the 1950s, and a minister seventeen times in all, has left scarcely a mark on the public consciousness, even in France itself.

But Hollande’s choice of political mentors tells us a lot: these are not the romantic figures of the French left, they are not firebrands or ideologues. They are all machine politicians, skilful operators who travelled light ideologically and knew how to bide their time. Politicians, in fact, a bit like François Hollande.

With France now firmly in the eurozone pressure cooker and his popularity dropping like a stone, we will soon find out if Hollande is indeed a ‘Flamby’ or a political jammy dodger like Mitterrand himself.

Shades of red

On 1 May 1993, Pierre Bérégovoy, a few weeks after resigning as prime minister of France, took his bodygaurd’s revolver and shot himself twice in the head (the second shot was attributed to a nervous reflex). He died later that night in hospital in Paris. Bérégovoy left no suicide note, but he was known to be deeply depressed about the Socialist party’s drubbing in the March 1993 elections and, as a lifelong anti-corruption campaigner, troubled by allegations about his past financial dealings. His suicide has become one of the iconic tragedies of the French left.

Nineteen years later, while Nicholas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen were holding mass rallies in Paris yesterday, the Socialist challenger François Hollande chose to spend May Day paying homage at Bérégovoy’s tomb in Nevers, deep in central France. He made a speech to a small crowd from the steps of the ducal palace, the same spot from where François Mitterrand delivered one of the most moving speeches of his career, a few days after Bérégovoy’s death.

Pierre Bérégovoy: the tragic prime minister is now praised for his management of the French economy in the 80s and early 90s.

Hollande’s solemn and low-key May Day wasn’t a Tony Blair-style ruse to distance himself from the unions, marching in their hundreds of thousands in May Day parades all over France. It was an event dripping in symbolism for the French left. Bérégovoy was mayor and MP for Nevers, and Mitterrand himself served as a local MP from 1946 to 1981. It was the latest in a series of pilgrimages by Hollande to the tombs of French socialist heroes, including a poignant visit to Mitterrand’s tomb in Jarnac on the anniversary of the former president’s death on 8 January.

It was all very redolent of Mitterrand, a master of the emotional and symbolic political gesture, whose reputation has undergone a considerable rehabilitation in France in recent years. As Hollande laid a spray of flowers on Bérégovoy’s tomb (pictured above), he evoked memories of Mitterrand’s inauguration in May 1981, when the new president carried two roses into the Panthéon and laid them on the tombs of the great resistance hero Jean Moulin and the founder of the French Socialist party, Jean Jaurès.

 This was, after all, ‘workers day’, and Bérégovoy was a former sheet metal worker, resistance fighter and noteable trade union leader. That ticks plenty of boxes. But Hollande’s hommage to this tragic figure had another symbolic purpose. The former prime minister is a key reference point for Hollande’s own bid to persaude French voters that a Socialist government can tackle the country’s economic crisis.

Although his term as PM in 1992-3 ended in disaster (the PS was reduced to 53 seats) Bérégovoy is more widely celebrated for his two stints as finance minister in the 80s and early 90s, when he is widely credited with turning around France’s economic performance under Mitterrand, after a disastrous start and, crucially, with bringing under control (if never quite eliminating) the country’s budget deficit. For this, you can see him as a sort of French Denis Healey, the Labour chancellor who battled courageously against the serial financial crises of the 1970s.

In his speech Hollande paid tribute to Bérégovoy as ‘the man who re-established the public finances, who knew how to manage and who knew the value of money’, a man who had led the ‘recovery of a France ravaged by deficits and inflation’.

In a passage mocking Sarkozy’s self-styled ‘real festival of work’ in Paris, Hollande said Pierre Bérégovoy was ‘a trade unionist, worker, statesman, a great servant of the Republic, who fought all his life for social improvement. This man, he could speak about work.’

He didn’t actually say, ‘all the things the Sarkozy isn’t’, but he didn’t really need to.

One foot in the Élysée

Okay, so he’s almost there. Since he emerged as the Socialist presidential candidate last October, every single opinion poll has pointed to a clear win for François Hollande over Nicholas Sarkozy in the second and final round of the election. Sarkozy’s recent revival in the polls has fizzled out. The total left vote keeps inching up. Socialist party (PS) dirigeants have apparently been heard whispering in corners about their portfolios.

You could divine the mood in the two camps by watching the two big campaign rallies in Paris on Sunday: Sarkozy launching ever more hysterical attacks on his opponents while Hollande spoke about mobilisation – getting the vote out – and the dangers of complacency.

But the closer we get, the more PS militants will be biting their nails. There have been few funnier things in this largely mirthless campaign than the goofy, dancing puppet of Hollande on Les Guignols d’Info (for older readers, this is a French version of the now-defunct ITV satirical show Spitting Image) performing a song called Alors, On Flippe in which various Socialist bigwigs fret about throwing away another election despite a big lead in the polls. ‘When you think you’ve finally won, you get a kick up the arse,’ sings Lionel Jospin, the defeated Socialist candidate in 1995 and 2002. ‘Your career, it’s in tatters; you were already seeing yourself in the Élysée.’ (Trust me, it works better in French.)

This isn’t really fair to Hollande himself, who has shown an almost Zen-like calm throughout the campaign, which you can take as natural insouciance, complacency or confidence – perhaps a bit of all three. Despite his dominance in the polls, the 57-year-old MP for the largely rural département of Corrèze in central France (in classic French style he is also the former Mayor of Tulle and president of the Corrèze Conseil General – effectively the county council) has been accused of failing to generate the kind of excitement which brought the left to power under François Mitterrand in 1981. Hollande – who styles himself as a Monsieur Normal in contrast to Sarkozy’s President Bling-Bling – could point to polls that show he’s doing even better than Mitterrand in 1981. But he doesn’t entirely reject the criticism.

‘1981, twenty-three years of opposition! Now, ten years, that’s not bad for a start,’ he said in his big interview with Libération on 12 April. ‘I think even that’s too much. In 1981, there was a very strong hope for change, even for a complete break. In a different context, 31 years later, there is a strong hope for justice, for confidence in what democracy and public action can do… It’s my duty to carry that hope.

‘The idea of a boring campaign is as old as the presidential election itself,’ he adds, pointing out that the ‘boring’ campaigns of 1995 and 2002 both produced unexpected results (the victory of Jacques Chirac and the second place finish for the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen, respecitvely). ‘I’m not in the campaign to enjoy myself or simply to make people happy… I have a higher responsibility than that.’

One of the straws in the wind is Sarkozy’s increasing resort to ‘red-scare’ tactics, most notably his repeated claims recently that the markets will bring France to its knees within days of a Socialist victory in May. (There isn’t much evidence for this – the French markets haven’t fared significantly worse recently than their other European counterparts.)

In response, Hollande often quotes Sarkozy’s arguments back at him, before rebutting or just mocking them (he is a gifted mimic but, sadly, no longer does Sarkozy impressions after getting into trouble a few months back). Here’s Hollande last week: ‘“If the left got in, they would empty the tills.’ It’s happened. The statement has been made, including by the prime minister – the state is bankrupt. Then they tell us: “Watch out if the left get in, they will run up deficits everywhere”. It’s happened. Balance of payments deficit, 70 billion euros, social security deficit, 17 billion euros, unemployment insurance, 15 billion of accumulated deficits. They tell us: “If the left get back in, there will be insecurity everywhere.” It’s happened… In this campaign I ask myself sometimes if it’s not me who is the incumbent. Him, he’s not responsible for anything. It was his predecessors, his successor, our neighbours, never him!’

It’s become a classic Hollande tactic. Sarkozy’s habit of running against his own record makes it easy for Hollande to demolish his arguments without being too specific about his own programme.

With his largely moderate policies and extreme caution about not taking victory for granted, Hollande may look like Tony Blair before 1997, but in at least one important respect the situation is quite different: Hollande has a left flank. The firebrand Front de Gauche leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon is riding high in the polls and is attracting by far the biggest crowds to his election rallies.

Hollande doesn’t want to alienate Mélenchon’s voters. He refrains from attacking Mélenchon directly (rarely mentioning him by name in his speeches) and makes few criticisms of his rather old-fashioned left-wing programme. Instead he sticks to the impeccably Mittterandiste line from 1981, even quoting the grand old man directly in his speech on Sunday: ‘I’m the only candidate on the left who is in a position to win.’

So unlike Blair, Hollande has had to look left as well as right, recently proposing a 75% top rate of tax, controls on spiralling rents and a renegotiation of the recent European treaty limiting government spending. While Mélenchon supporters can be expected to switch en masse to Hollande in the second round, too high a score for Mélenchon could scare the horses in the run-off, by giving the impression that Hollande is somehow ‘in hoc’ to the far-left (it’s a line Sarkozy has been pedalling with enthusiasm). So ironically by turning up the left-wing rhetoric (and hence hoping to keep a lid on Mélenchon’s vote) Hollande is actually playing for the centrist votes he will need in the second round.

It’s a difficult balancing act which, so far, Hollande has performed skilfully. And with Sarkozy looking beaten, the election now looks like his to lose. Surely, nothing can go wrong? Probably not, but this is the Parti Socialiste, so just keep an eye out for that unexpected kick up the arse.