In Britain, the tradition is for politicians to write memoirs, spilling the secrets of power once they are safely out of office. In France, publishing is more often a rite of passage on the route to high office; a means for the ambitious to present themselves to the electorate, as personality and politician; to explain their career and convictions – all with a rhetorical and philosophical flourish few Anglo-Saxon voters would tolerate.
It is a delicate task – and an especially delicate one for François Hollande, the Socialist candidate who has transformed his image, from rotund, wisecracking party apparatchik to lean, hard-edged statesman-in-waiting, to lead France’s election race.
In Changer de destin, his pitch for the presidency, he has to skirt around a tangled personal life. More substantively, he has to gloss over a career in which, often eclipsed by his former partner Ségolène Royal, he held no ministerial position but as first secretary of the Socialist party oversaw some of the more bitter defeats and divisions of the French left. The book is thus by necessity more manifesto than memoir. Yet here, too, Hollande has a difficult task: he must overcome perceptions that he is a soft-centred consensus-builder who avoids tough choices, while expounding a programme largely agreed by committee as a common platform for whichever candidate won his party’s nomination.
The result is not absorbing in any literary sense. Yet it is a virtuoso display of Hollande’s political instincts and tactical skills, matching fiery anti-capitalist rhetoric with moderate policies; and giving a deft spin to the barest of biographical details.
So he refers to his education in France’s elite grandes écoles as an unaided progression through “the stages of the French meritocracy ... een as the obligatory path to serving the state”. In just one paragraph he describes how he “effaced himself” for Ms Royal to contest the 2007 election as their relationship fell apart; and there is one mention only of Valérie Trierweiler, the journalist he has since been paired with.
If laconic on his personal life, however, he is effusive in presenting this reserve as a virtue. A president “has emotions but not fits of emotion, he doesn’t make public the state of his soul or his intimate outpourings,” he writes. “My presidency will have a measure of restraint.” The message is clear: I am not Nicolas Sarkozy.
Less clear is where Hollande’s real convictions lie. The bulk of the book is devoted to setting out his programme, yet it is chiefly an exercise in trying to be all things to all men.
Like all French politicians, he pays tribute to the heroes of the left – Jean Jaurès, Léon Blum, the communards – but also to the national saviour, de Gaulle and, in a nod to France’s pre-revolutionary heritage, King Henri IV.
He inveighs against the evils of the “empire of money”, “untrammelled globalisation” and the “financial tsunami”, yet barely differs from Mr Sarkozy on the substance of fiscal policy or financial regulation. Voters looking for reassurance on matters of immigration, social integration and security – high on the agenda after last week’s killings in Toulouse – may also be unconvinced by his promises to act with “both the humanity and the firmness required”.
Again, he aims to make a virtue of such ambiguity, suggesting it is preferable to the style of presidency France has at present: “If only making a decision was enough for the country to advance ... Slamming a fist on the table has never made it advance. What counts is constancy, coherence, credibility in the service of a long-term vision.” Moderation is indeed part of Hollande’s appeal – but if voters are not yet sure of what they will really get if they pick him, this book does not provide the answer.
More important, it gives no real explanation of Hollande’s failure, in 11 years leading the Socialist party, to unite its factions or rescue it from opposition. Instead, he implies, the fault lay with others; if the Socialists were winning local elections but not the presidency, it must mean he was the man they needed “to end this long and unjust absence of the left”!
What does come across strongly, though, is just how much Hollande wants to win. The passages written with most feeling are those in which he describes the great setbacks of his career – the humiliation of 2002, when the Socialists were eliminated from the presidential contest in the first round by the far-right National Front, or the French rejection in 2005 of a European constitution, when he had campaigned for a Yes without carrying his party or voters with him.
“I have know difficult campaigns in 30 years of political life ... but never such a rejection of a text that enshrined what my own voters judged to be a victory of liberalism. It is the defeats that light the way forward.” This campaign, above all, is Hollande’s bid to erase the memory of painful failures.
The writer is the FT’s deputy comment editor