François Hollande: “Putin cannot be seduced. respects power”

François Hollande has a ring on his finger and is proud to show it off. Recently married for the first time, the former French president, whose colorful love life was among the many distractions in a spectacularly unpopular presidency, feels liberated. It has been six years since he made his fateful decision not to seek re-election in the 2017 presidential election. His successor, Emmanuel Macron, has had his share of crises, putting Hollande’s dismal record in a slightly better light. “I no longer analyze my record in retrospect. There is a kind of newfound freedom,” he tells me as we sit for lunch in a Parisian bistro. “I’m happy, I’m married, I have a family and grandchildren.”

The only president in the history of the Fifth Republic who decided to win a second term, Hollande could have faded into obscurity. With a low single-digit popularity rating and a portrait that never fit in the public imagination, matching the grandeur of the Élysée Palace with a slightly silly image, it battered his socialist party, a state from which it never recovered. .

However, after three political books and two children’s books, the 68-year-old is ready to get back into politics. He claims to be a mere commentator on events, but is less emphatic when I ask if he still has political ambitions. No doubt he disapproves of the decision not to seek a second term. “I’m sorry I said it then; I didn’t have all the elements I needed to make the right decision.”

France is in a “dangerous” crisis, he says, with recent protests and strikes over Macron’s decision to raise the state pension age from 62 to 64, a pension reform. With the traditional left captured by radicals and the traditional right crushed, the danger is that social unrest will only benefit Marine Le Pen’s far-right party. If he doesn’t fully admit it, Hollande must be watching with satisfaction the agony of Macron, whom he brought to power only to see him declare the presidential election as an independent. Did Macron betray him? “At least he didn’t tell the truth about his intentions, you can put it that way.”

Hollande is certainly not sparing criticism of his successor, whom he described as having no political convictions. “In the beginning, his compass was that the country suffers from rigidity and closure, the left, the right. He said I release energies and break him [things]. What did you break? He broke a political system.”

The world is also much more turbulent than during Hollande’s presidential days: Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has upset the post-war international order, and the China-Russia axis is becoming increasingly tense. Hollande has always taken a clear view of Vladimir Putin and has separated himself from a French political tradition that has often been more complacent about Russia. After Putin sent his “little green men” to destabilize eastern Ukraine in 2014, Hollande canceled a controversial Russian order for two French-made Mistral helicopter carriers, satisfying his Western allies – although he also helped push Ukraine into the failed Minsk II peace process. . recognize the nature of Russian aggression. “Putin cannot be seduced,” he tells me. “He respects power.”

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Hollande chose PlotsA tiny bistro from 1936 in the classic Marais district, for our lunch. The restaurant has an atmosphere of retro elegance, its main charm is the original copper and wooden counter, as well as the dusty bottles of magnificent wines lined up on the shelves. The jazz music has been turned down to facilitate conversation, and the owner is excited to host the ex-president for a second time.

The menu at Parcelles is as earthy and traditional as the decor. For starters, Hollande orders a terrine and jokes that he wants FT readers to know that the French have lost nothing of the taste of pork and foie gras. I choose a less adventurous option, a tartare de maigre. We both decide on the special main course of the day: turbot with peanut sauce. Parcelles is known more for its wine than its cuisine, so I choose a Chardonnay from Bourgogne and Hollande a glass of Mondeuse from Savoie.

Before I left for Parcelles, I spoke to several people about Hollande and repeatedly used two words to describe him:sympathetic” (friendly) and “funny” (fun) adjectives that describe a pleasant lunch companion for me, but a character who might not be electrifying enough for the Élysée. Hollande was indeed an accidental leader, a longtime party secretary whose partner, Ségolène Royal, the mother of his four children, was seen as the more talented politician. After their split, Royal competed to be the Socialists’ presidential candidate in the 2007 election, but lost to centre-right Nicolas Sarkozy.

Five years later, the French were bored with Sarkozy’s “bling bling” presidency, while the candidacy of Socialist favorite Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former managing director of the IMF, collapsed amid allegations of sexual harassment. Hollande enters, promising to be a “normal” president who will restore respect for office.

He soon realized that the role itself was not normal in a nation that wanted its presidents to be both Jupiterian and close to the people. I start to ask why France expects presidents to be kings, and Hollande continues my sentence, “just to cut off their heads.” The French public, he explains, wants a difficult balance: “Someone who embodies authority and who can then be trusted. But authority is not authoritarianism. It is based on wisdom, determination, but also conviction and respect.”

Hollande didn’t quite fit the bill. His presidency was plagued by stubborn unemployment and was seen as hesitant and indecisive. He was also prone to it indiscretion, none as memorable as her secret escape from the Élysée in 2014. He was captured wearing a full-face helmet on the back of a scooter meeting his lover, actress Julie Gayet, who is now his wife. At the time, she was living with a Paris Match journalist, who caused her to leave the Royal. “In 2012, I campaigned on a scooter. It was huge,” he says, very matter-of-factly, when I bring up the episode.

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13 rue Chapon, 75003 Paris

Tartare de maigre €21
White asparagus €20
Turboly x 2 €84
Risotto €26
Terrine €13
Water €3.50
A glass of Saint-Véran Bois de Fee €14
Glass Douce noire €9.50
Tarte au chocolate x 2 €28
Complete €219

The death blow of his political career was the publication of a book with which he collaborated closely, so that two investigative journalists from Le Monde regularly interviewed him during his presidency. “Un président ne devrait pas dire ça . . .” (“A president shouldn’t say that”) was shocking, full of juicy Hollande quotes that angered many in his own party.

Looking back, Hollande says he doesn’t regret the book, just the title, which are words he said in passing and was shocked to find on the cover. “It was historic; no one has done it before and we need to explain what we are doing inside [the Élysée]. But they used it as a weapon against me. Even those who bought it didn’t read it. It was all about the title.”

The turbot cuts the bone and melts in the mouth, and the conversation turns to foreign policy, where Hollande has shown greater determination and appetite for foreign intervention. In his book published in 2022 Bouleversements (“Upheavals”), he describes his first meetings with Putin, when he was struck by a combination of cold determination, hostility toward the United States, and anger over the expansion of the NATO alliance. Hollande considered him a rational actor then, and still considers him a master of the elaborate art of lying.

How will the war in Ukraine end, I ask him. According to him, this will depend on the outcome of the 2024 US presidential election. “If Trump is elected, he will say: stop here; what the Russians have, they can keep. War costs too much.” According to him, what has changed since Hollande’s tenure is that the shape of the new geopolitical order has become clearer, the Russia-China axis has consolidated and is challenging the West.

I ask whether France is in danger of repeating the mistake it made with Russia, where it allowed economic interests to override politics for too long. What did you make of the uproar over Macron’s trip to China in April and his comment that Europe should not be a “follower” of the US and risk being drawn into a conflict over Taiwan?

When the subject of Macron comes up, Hollande lowers his gaze and smiles as if weighing his words carefully. “If you go to China only with economic interests in mind and forget about French political interests, you will be less heard and weaker,” he says. He then praises Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, who accompanied Macron after he gave a powerful speech on China. In Hollande’s words, he is a leader who has “laid down the right principles”.

Like Macron, Hollande is a supporter of the concept of European strategic autonomy and the need to develop a common European defense. He claims that this autonomy must always be tied to the NATO alliance. According to him, Europe must prepare for a day when it will have to rely on itself for its security, but that does not mean that it does not serve the same goals as the United States. “If we suggest to European allies that we do not have the same interests as the United States, at least for peace. . . our allies cannot follow us.”

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The best part of the meal, and the trickier part of the conversation, comes with dessert. Hollande is apparently a fan of dessert, but claims to indulge by ordering his own chocolate cake. “I won’t let Madame eat alone.”

We are on the subject of post-Macron France. I tell Hollande that I am shocked by the number of people who seem fatalistic about Le Pen’s presidency in 2027. This is a lazy analysis, says Hollande. Marine Le Pen, who has reached the second round of the presidential election twice in the last decade, may indeed win, but the fate of France depends just as much on whether the traditional right and left parties manage to form government parties. Macron won re-election, but he did not build a real political party that would necessarily survive him.

Hollande believes that Macronism is short-lived. “[Macron] he did not want to build a party or a doctrine. . . no one knows the name of the party leader. I don’t want to offend you by saying this, but no one knows the direction of this party.” The challenge for the left is not to quell the current radicalism, but to rebuild with new voters and new leadership. “Francois Mitterrand [the late French president] they used to say that ‘civilians can become soldiers’, and yes, you have to create a majority with those who don’t vote for you,” says Hollande. “If you stay in your usual camp, and it’s narrower and more radical now, you won’t win anything.”

Two hours passed and we tasted the dessert. Before leaving, I ask him who has the presidential authority that the French desire? Charles de Gaulle, of course, but it has to do with his role in history and with Mitterrand, who had a certain authority that was mysterious. Then a strange name that we briefly discussed earlier returns: Joe Biden. “It is true that he is not a charismatic character in that sense [Barack] Obama may be, but does he embody a form of authority based on wisdom and determination?

Hollande, as if speaking to himself and not to me, adds: “If I am wise, I can be firmer. It means that I don’t do things out of impulse, but with reason and conviction.”

Roula Khalaf is the editor of the Financial Times

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