In this year of grand Shakespearean themes, the humiliation of François Hollande repels the gaze as no other. There was no single, richly deserved Nemesis, as was the case with Hillary and Blair; just the utter determination of la Gauche, by a thousand cuts, to render itself ungovernable and so, ungoverning. In the Valhalla-Élysée of last Friday, any lingering illusion of a tameable, ‘broad church’ Left finally disintegrated, when the president scotched his own candidacy for a second five-year term. With this formality removed, the way is now clear for the socialist primary in January. Its manners will be as unrefined as those of the government and party that made it unavoidable, as this piece from Solenn de Royer in Le Figaro explains.

At the Élysée, haunted Palace, the advisors are torn between emotion and regret

First published in French 2nd December 2016, in Le Figaro

Mixed feelings. A little before 8 o’clock on Thursday evening, François Hollande crosses the rue de l’Élysée to enter the presidential recording studio, accompanied by two of his advisors, Gaspard Gantzer and Stéphane Ruet, as well as his aide de camp, his security officer, and his make-up artist, Nadia. On this first evening of December, milder than those preceding, those who had stood faithfully by the president for months if not years, are all heavy-hearted. But they sense also that they are living through an unprecedented, an ‘historic’, moment. “There was sadness, emotion, and pride”, recounts one of them, who confessed to feeling “choked” as he waited behind the studio door for the president to finish speaking.

When François Hollande, who had just abdicated, re-enters the Palace with his advisors, they encounter a group of guests at an awards ceremony that had just ended. Present is the former secretary-general of the Élysée, Pierre-René Lemas, sacrificed on the altar of the ‘big bang’ of 2014, which had accompanied the naming of Manuel Valls to the Matignon. Also there, the parliamentary advisor to the president, Bernard Rullier, in tears.  Hollande consoles him, before ascending to his office on the first floor of the Palace. He stops at his secretariat, where his loyal female assistants, two of whom had followed him from the [rue de] Solférino [Parti socialiste HQ] to the Élysée, receive him with displays of emotion. The president then leaves the grieving troupe and goes to dine with his children. His mobile phone, which remains blinking on the table, vibrates all evening.

Although they were beginning to understand that the most unpopular Head of State of the Fifth Republic was in the process of deciding against a second-term candidacy, the surprise at the Élysée was total.

Although they were beginning to understand that the most unpopular Head of State of the Fifth Republic was in the process of deciding against a second-term candidacy, the surprise at the Élysée was total. Those who had hoped that the president would go into battle to save his honour and defend his record, would have to swallow their arguments, now rendered otiose. For some weeks, partisans for the candidacy — notable amongst them the advisor Vincent Feltesse — had struggled against a tide. Against the opinion polls, the Matignon [camp of prime minister Valls – Ed.], and against a section of the Parti socialiste. Against the president’s family, “Ségolène [Royal] and the children”. “You don’t quit because a poll puts you at less than 10%!”, sighs an aide. “You can’t win battles you haven’t fought.” An advisor attempts to be philosophical: “When you’re out of oxygen, you can’t breath… That’s life.”


In the corridors of the Palace, they rake over the coals of the foregoing weeks in an attempt to find some evidence, a sign that made no sense at the time but might now illuminate the president’s decision. “Like a light-bulb that comes on a bit late”, quips an advisor amiably. There was certainly this obstinate refusal of the president to form a campaign team or look for an HQ. A retreat, an avoidance, every time the candidacy was brought up; dates, places. “Every time we got onto the subject, he would hold back”, explained an advisor. “Nothing was organized.” When his security guards heard about October’s good unemployment figures, there was euphoria. But Hollande refused to ‘front the cameras’. “Let them believe I’ll be a candidate…”, he agued. The day after the first round of the primary for the Right and Centre, he had let loose another troubling comment: “Sarkozy would have won the primary had he not been a candidate in 2012.” For his part, the advisor to the Élysée, Bernard Combes, also mayor of Tulle, had sent an SMS to François Hollande from a political meeting in the Corrèze: “I’m with the militants, and they want you.” Response of the president: “It’s you that they want.” “That puts it beyond any further doubt that his preference was to withdraw”, an advisor persuades himself.

Beyond the walls of the Élysée, the whole of François Hollande territory is stunned, torn between emotion, disappointment, and profound resentment. In his [Agriculture] Ministry in the rue de Varenne, Stéphane Le Foll erupts, crazy with rage at Manuel Valls, accusing him of having led a successful ‘impeachment’. “Le Foll even thought momentarily of presenting himself at the primary”, one Hollande supporter purports to know. The Minister of Agriculture’s young advisor, Rémi Branco, who for five years has organized Hollande’s support networks, no longer picks up his phone: “My apologies, I’m in no condition to reply”, he says simply, by SMS. Lifelong friend Julien Dray, who fought to the bitter end, and whom the president had allowed to organize a meeting of supporters for Tuesday evening in Paris, is bitter. “Ye gods, it’s a mockery; he did all that work without knowing anything”, sighs one of his aides. “We need time to take it all in”, says the president’s tireless standard-bearer, the deputy Sébastien Denaja, who keeps himself in check. A time for mourning. Before, perhaps, a return to the political struggle.

“The primary will open the gates of hell”

Hollande’s supporters were well aware that the Head of State had not anointed a successor. It was open to anyone to support Emmanuel Macron (as did the president’s close friend, Jean-Pierre Mignard)… or Manuel Valls. “Nobody will be absolving Valls”, fumes a former advisor at the Élysée. “The rift is public knowledge.” “Hollande sealed his coffin the day he put Valls in the Matignon”, observes another of the faithful. “Many of us told him, he’ll kill you. And that is what’s happened.” A silence; then he follows up with: “The primary is going to open the gates of hell on us.”

“Hollande sealed his coffin the day he put Valls in the Matignon”, observes another of the faithful.

At dawn on Friday, the president took off for Abu Dhabi with his advisor Claudine Rippert, who hadn’t slept a wink all night. In the morning, secretary-general Jean-Pierre Jouyet chaired the usual cabinet meeting, calling on counsellors to remain focussed on the “issues”. “Everyone should be concentrating on his portfolio”, he urged. From his office overlooking the main courtyard of the Palace, Gaspard Gantzer [Hollande’s spin-doctor] spent the day with his ear stuck to the telephone, giving his analysis of the president’s decision. The political advisor, Vincent Feltesse, who for some months had been organizing the teams and strategy in preparation for the campaign, left for his home in Bordeaux to recharge his batteries… As for the parliamentary advisor Bernard Rullier, who quickly dried his tears, he went in front of the TV cameras on the steps of the Palace… “We’re back in business”, quipped an advisor, before adding: “Vanity of vanities…” Another close associate of François Hollande summed it up: “One thing is sure: at the Élysée, nothing will ever be the same again.” §