He’s already being called a one-term failure, a bumbling bureaucrat who has blown the biggest opportunity afforded his party in a generation. Indeed, it speaks to the creeping sense of malaise that carried over from the final stretch of Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency that French President François Hollande, despite leading his Socialists to a solid victory at the polls just over a year ago, is apparently beyond saving, as many political analysts have taken to labeling him in recent days. The European Union Summit Thursday and Friday offers the struggling incumbent hope, presenting yet another opportunity to challenge the forces of austerity — why he was elected, after all — on the global stage. But fresh off the gutting of his transparency initiative, still reeling from scandal and plagued by high unemployment and an image as inept and — even worse — boring, Hollande is unlikely to deliver.
The apex of his presidency, which was supposed to reverse the tide of growing income inequality and global financial shocks, may ironically end up being a military incursion into Africa, where Mali is inching back toward civilian governance. As for the European Union, Hollande’s government has used stronger, more confrontational language in recent weeks — his industry minister on Sunday derided the “European ruling class” for pushing the continent back toward nationalism — leading to speculation he will personally challenge E.U. Commissioner Jose Manuel Barroso at the summit in Brussels. If nothing else, a real confrontation would shock a press corps that has decided Hollande is only interesting as an epic tale of meek failure. Breaking out of that mold and engaging in some ideological warfare would serve to reinvigorate his base on the French Left and perhaps help get his caucus in parliament a bit more unified as they try to patch up the remains of the transparency law before final passage.
The only reason to be skeptical of such a daring move is Hollande himself, a man whose political skills have proven to be painfully limited and whose quiet stature was well-suited to riding the anti-incumbent wave last spring but is absolutely disastrous now, with the public so agitated and his party desperate for leadership. With the new gay marriage law dividing the electorate more sharply than expected, Hollande has become a cypher for discontent, a symbol of a troubled time, somewhat like President Jimmy Carter in United States in the late 1970s. Even when problems like the collapse of the auto industry predated Hollande’s tenure, voters have no one else to blame. And his remarkable inability to connect in speeches and TV appearances deprives the president of the usual ability of troubled leaders to use the trappings of the office to drive home a message. So while it might prove perfectly logical for Hollande to clash with E.U. leadership this week, it’s important to remember who we’re dealing with — and not to get too excited.