PARIS - From Francois to Francois? Will French Socialist presidential candidate Francois Hollande fill the shoes of Francois Mitterrand, 31 years after the latter became the only Socialist Party president in the history of the Fifth Republic? According to Olivier Ferrand, who initiated France's first open primaries - which Hollande won, there is no question. Victory is Hollande's.
I sat with Ferrand at the offices of Terra Nova, a think tank on the Champs-Elysees that he founded and that is dedicated to paving the way for the Socialists' return from the political wilderness.
It is in fact still more than half a year until the elections. Incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy is known as a man of the last lap, and everyone is still waiting to see the effect of the birth of the first presidential baby, born yesterday to Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni. On the other hand, never before in an election year has an opposition presidential candidate led in the polls over an incumbent by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin. Such a gap is impossible to bridge, Ferrand maintains.
The critical financial situation, disgust with Sarkozy's frenetic personality and flamboyant lifestyle, and the multiplying scandals dogging him and his associates, all should be enough for "Monsieur Normal," as Hollande characterizes himself, to prevail over Sarkozy with his opposing, extravagant image.
Julien Dray sits in his home in Paris' 20th Arrondissement, contemplating for ways to make the historical turnaround a reality. Dray, a Jewish member of the French parliament and former Trotskyite who joined forces with Mitterrand and supported the candidacy of Segolene Royal for president in 2007, is now considered one of Hollande's main supporters. You take one look at Dray and are struck by the resemblance with Tony Soprano. Ironically, maybe that's why there are those who see him as France's next minister responsible for public security. Whatever fate holds in store for him personally, Dray is convinced that Israel has nothing to be concerned about over the prospect of the reds taking over the French presidency and over the departure of "the most Zionist president France has ever known."
The campaign to release Gilad Shalit? As president, Hollande would have acted with the same determination Sarkozy did says Dray. Standing by Israel in the peace process? Hollande has visited Israel several times and intends to be very active. His commitment to Israel's security and his approach to the Palestinian bid for recognition as a state at the United Nations would not differ from Sarkozy's stance. The Iranian nuclear program? A worldwide danger that he would forcefully oppose. Coming out against anti-Semitism? Without compromise and all the more forcefully.
There are those who contend that the French left is traditionally hostile to Israel. But the sense of socialist fraternity leading up to the establishment of the state; the support of Guy Mollet's government in the Suez campaign in 1956; cooperation between Shimon Peres and his counterparts on the left in the nuclear field; and Mitterrand's breach of the boycott of French presidents from visiting Israel are just some of the examples that refute this. In addition, the differences between Sarkozy and Hollande in how they relate to Israel and the Middle East amount to matters of tone and nuance.
However, Hollande is running for election as the great unifier of the left. That includes the Greens and the radical camp, which is anti-Zionist in part. This candidate of consensus and shortcuts will have to take account of the policies of his party, which equally welcomed Shalit's return and Israel's release of Palestinian prisoners. He might find it difficult to ignore his party's secretary-general, Martine Aubry, who is considered pro-Palestinian, as well as Arnaud Montebourg, the rising star of the party, who demanded that sanctions be imposed on Israel in response to the closure on Gaza and following what he characterized as Israel's pirate operation in stopping last year's Turkish flotilla.
In the absence of a genuine peace process, Hollande, as empathetic as he might be to Israel, might find it difficult to deflect pressure within his party. In that case, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might end up longing for the flub-ups with Sarkozy.