THE job of French president is grim, but someone has to do it. Such was the view of Charles de Gaulle. "My mission seemed clear and terrible," he once said. "At this moment, the worst in her history, it was for me to assume the burden of France." François Hollande, the first-round victor in the race for the presidency, is more upbeat.
The Socialist leader, nicknamed “Monsieur Flanby”, after a milk pudding, senses triumph against Nicolas Sarkozy. Adieu, Mr Bling; enter the human blancmange. “Change is afoot,” Mr Hollande tweeted. “Nothing will stop it now.” We shall see. Mr Sarkozy, who will fight to the end to prove him wrong, may yet prevail.
If, however, France elects its first Socialist president since 1988, Mr Hollande will shoulder not only internal problems but also the dreams of those leaders, Ed Miliband included, who hope the centre-Right’s grip on Europe is weakening. Angela Merkel, who has campaigned for Mr Sarkozy, faces possible ejection in the forthcoming German elections.
David Cameron, on a media charm offensive to shore up his floundering government, may wish that he had been less dismissive of Mr Hollande, whom he declined to meet either in Paris or in London. Mr Miliband, while not yet waving a tricolore or sporting strings of onions, is cautiously delighted. Though he and Mr Hollande had not met until a few weeks ago, the Labour leader has become so close to his French counterpart that Lord [Stewart] Wood, a key Miliband adviser, has been invited to spend election night at the Paris headquarters of Mr Hollande, who recently attended a roast beef lunch with Team Miliband in Westminster.
Guests were surprised by the monoglot nature of the event (Mr Miliband has little French, and M Hollande talks nothing but). “Even Sarkozy used to speak a few words of English to us,” says one shadow cabinet member. “Mainly to complain about British food.” Despite the bonds that have been forged, Labour can afford no exultation.
It would be rash to draw generalisations from France’s potential drubbing of a disliked president. Winston Churchill’s view of Louis XIV as “a high-heeled, periwigged dandy” roughly accords with French citizens’ perceptions of their vain and ineffective leader. If ever a president authored his own fate, it is Mr Sarkozy, whose anti-Islamic stance and racist allusions gave legitimacy to the public grievances amplified by Marine Le Pen, for whom one in five have voted.
But, despite a YouGov poll predicting a 54 per cent victory against 46 per cent for Mr Sarkozy, Mr Hollande also has cause for worry. His first-round win was due, in part, to the National Front’s breakthrough. The slump in backing for the far-Left means that he will need to win support not only from centrist voters but also from the unemployed blue-collar workers who favour Le Pen but loathe Sarkozy. Across northern Europe, the Left is vulnerable to the rage vote, as George Galloway’s rout of Labour in Bradford West has shown.
But although mavericks of all stripes threaten the established order, the rise of Marine Le Pen fits an emerging pattern of hard-Right resurgence that should chill all those who inhabit the tolerant centre ground. Le Pen is a proto-fascist, peddling a glossy rebrand of hatred that has seduced some French voters and disarmed observers on both sides of the Channel who have greeted her achievement with something approaching respect. Yet its patina of politeness makes designer fascism more insidious, and thus more poisonous, than cruder anti-immigrant bile.
Those Sarkozy backers who would prefer a racially divisive provocateur than a socialist for president should also be more careful what they wish for, as the far-Right jubilation that taints France finds echoes throughout Europe. At one end of the spectrum of extremism lies the acceptable face of xenophobic politics. In Britain, Ukip’s lead over the Lib Dems in some polls means that Mr Cameron must decide whether he should succumb to backbench sirens and tack to the Right. The likely spectacle of Mr Sarkozy doing just that in a last bid to cling to power by unsavoury means should convince the PM of the folly of such a course.
Meanwhile, on the eve of St George’s Day, neo-Nazis of the English Defence League brawled in Brighton. In Malmö, the setting for the new BBC4 crime series, The Bridge, a spate of real-life killings on a poor estate has revealed a Sweden riven by social and racial tensions. In a Norwegian courtroom, Anders Behring Breivik epitomises the pomposity of evil as he flaunts his slaughter of teenage activists who, had they lived, might have challenged his white supremacist worldview.
Breivik, a puffy-faced computer game nerd, may be uniquely vile, but the small resentments that metastasised into mass murder flicker in the souls of law-abiding citizens across Europe. The link between economic blight and far-Right extremism casts a long and darkening shadow over this continent, while demographics set another force in play.
As the American immigration expert, Frank Sharry, explained at an event held by the British Future think tank last week, the huge rise in the minority vote, especially among the Hispanic population, is likely to secure Barack Obama’s second term. The only recent Republican to beguile minorities was George W Bush, whose appeal makes insiders predict that his brother, Jeb, will run for president next time round, should Mitt Romney fail.
For assorted reasons, not least poverty, a similar story is taking shape in Britain, where Labour attracted 68 per cent of the ethnic minority vote in the 2010 election, against the Tories’ 16 per cent. With minority voters increasing as far-Right sentiment burgeons and economic misery deepens, Europe risks electoral and social earthquakes that no party dares ignore.
At this pivotal moment, a French socialist with the charisma of cheese may yet determine the future of his continent. Mr Hollande’s economic prospectus, hazy though it is, has been unfairly billed as rabidly Left-wing. Mr Normal’s deficit-cutting agenda is not greatly different to the incumbent’s. If elected, he may, like Mitterrand before him, discard rasher campaign promises.
Even so, Mr Hollande would challenge the orthodoxy of austerity, champion growth and promote, to Germany’s anxiety, the more activist European Central Bank that Ed Balls has demanded. Mr Miliband expects Mr Hollande, if elected, to become the most hated man in Britain. But should the incomer stumble on the alchemy of creating hope and jobs, then extremist resentment might wither and faith in mainstream politics rise again. In that case, Mr Miliband would find himself, along with his new best friend, on the right side of history.
Should Mr Hollande crash and burn, however, then the dreams of Europe’s centre-Left could combust with him. Neither scenario may ever come to pass if Mr Sarkozy stages a resurrection, as he might. In the absence of such a turnaround, the role of Atlas – the mythic supporter of the heavens – will fall on the drooping shoulders of François Hollande, the most unlikely of all Titans in the bleakest of all times. Even de Gaulle might have balked at such a burden.