French President François Hollande has announced that he won't run for a second term — the first president in the history of the French Fifth Republic to decline to do so. Even though his approval ratings were the lowest for any president in recorded history, sometimes sinking as low as 6 percent, the news nonetheless stunned political observers.
Hollande — a perpetual underdog, the man always underestimated by everyone around him, the survivor — was sure to run. But when he looked political reality square in the eyes, he saw that he had no chance, so he withdrew.
He came to power at the heart of the long economic purgatory that has engulfed Europe since the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing euro crisis. His presidency looked doomed from the start. A warm, affable, and funny man in private by all accounts, he comes off on camera as a bumbling, awkward Mr. Everyman, in a country that expects its heads of state to be regal. In the first days of his presidency, as if by divine fiat or in a comedy film, whenever he would step up to the podium at some occasion, rain would start pouring down on him.
Hollande, who had never held government office before, appointed incompetent staffers. He filled out his Cabinet with a view to balancing the forces within his Socialist Party, rather than any particular governing agenda. Ministers squabbled in public about what the government's policy should be, without ever being sanctioned, something unheard of in French politics.
After two years of the government dithering while the country sank deeper in economic morass, Hollande sacked his ineffectual prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, and appointed his moderate but tough-minded Interior Minister Manuel Valls in his stead, and essentially outsourced government policy to him.
Hollande ridiculed himself with his public breakup with his girlfriend, and then was photographed sneaking to trysts with an actress on a scooter.
This year, as the elections grew near, Hollande started lining up the pieces for a presidential run. But then, an astonishing book, titled A President Should Not Be Saying That..., was published, and simply flabbergasted the entire country. Hollande was known for being excessively chatty with reporters, and for most of his term, Hollande had long, on-the-record talks with two specific journalists, which led to the publication of the 650-page book. In it, the president spoke unfiltered, and each page featured a bombshell, either contradicting his public occurrences, tattle taling about ministers, bragging about ordering assassinations of a foreign terrorist, talking about potentially illegal things such as leaning on the French football league so that a favored TV channel would get TV rights to the games, and saying that his Socialist Party "needs to commit suicide."
In the end, the firebrand conservative pundit Eric Zemmour spoke for most French people when he summed up Hollande's legacy in the title of a recent book, A Term For Nothing.
All of this said, there are still good aspects to Hollande's legacy, which may be reflected more positively as time marches on and his scandals fade a bit into the background.
On foreign policy, for example, Hollande mostly made the right choices. Unlike most of the new crop of heads of state, he hasn't fallen for Russian President Vladimir Putin's charm, cutting off weapons sales in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. In Mali and other African countries destabilized by the invasion of Libya, France's decisive response has prevented more countries from becoming failed states and havens for international terrorists. In Syria, he tried to pursue a policy of combating both the Islamic State and the Assad regime and protecting civilians, in particular religious minorities. Behind the scenes, French diplomacy under the shrewd Laurent Fabius has been extremely active in putting pressure on Iran during the nuclear deal negotiations (more so than the United States) and in protecting Middle East Christians, with whom France has a protector relationship dating back to the Crusades.
And in the area of domestic reform, Hollande's reform of the labor market will surely stand the test of time. France's labor market regulations create a two-tier system whereby the privileged get secure jobs, which enable access to things like housing and credit, and the unprivileged have to make do with either unemployment or temporary labor. This is the situation Hollande sought to rectify. His law, by itself, didn't change much, but that's not what matters. What matters is that it passed, unlike so many previously proposed labor market reforms. It set up a blueprint for passing further reforms. After many protests, unions came to the table, some changes were made to the law, and it was passed. Hollande's reform was actually one of the most significant to the labor market in years, and he showed it could be done. That counts for something.
History may not remember Hollande as a great president, or even a good president. But he should take comfort in knowing that the people of the future might remember him more fondly than most French people do today.