The trouble with being ‘Mr Normal’

Keir Starmer on the left looking optimistic, Francois Hollande on the right with head in his hands

The victory of the Labour Party at the next general election is by no means a ‘fait accompli’ but as it draws closer, and the party rides high in the polls, it is only rational to look ahead. 

Labour is currently grappling with how to be a progressive party in the context of economic malaise. For a lesson in how not to do it, we only have to look across the channel. 

François Hollande, leader of the Parti Socialiste, was elected President of France in 2012 amid economic crisis and austerity, replacing a conservative government that had been riddled with scandal and sleaze, dragged down by the personal unpopularity of its leader. Plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose. 

But the party lost the presidency at the very next election and 10 years on, in 2022, its candidate Anne Hidalgo got only 1.75% of the votes. It seems to be functionally on its deathbed. 

Hollande ran on a familiar centre-left platform for change, growth, and fiscal responsibility, promising “normality”. So what happened, and what should we learn?

Govern fast, or govern slow? 

Hollande inherited unemployment figures at a 12 year high, a eurozone debt crisis shaking France’s economy, and a growing populist far-right movement. The French public wanted change. 

As basically any policy analyst will tell you, real change is hard to achieve and takes place over the long term. Hollande prioritised long-term structural reforms to the French economy, and expected the public to understand that the hardships would not ease in the short-term. This is without a doubt the correct move in policy terms. Long-termism is in vogue in and around Labour at the moment, precisely because it is the only answer to some of the deep-seated issues the country faces. The problem though, is when policy orthodoxy clashes with the political needs of voters – only the latter will ever win. 

So Starmer’s Labour must decide how to balance this equation. The party is fighting hard for public support of long-term reform over Tory “sticking plaster politics” and it is possible that if voters are aware of the scale of investment needed to fix the numerous issues facing the country, they will be forgiving of a lack of short-term results. But it is also possible they will not.

If Labour wins a majority, it is likely that swing voters will have supported them because of the havoc the Tories have inflicted on their everyday finances. Labour will be expected to move very quickly to ease the hardships in the short-term- aka, some “sticking plaster” policies. 

Leadership matters

Faced with a challenging context, issues of hesitancy and zig-zagging over policy began to plague Hollande’s administration from his first Presidential appointments, beginning the fracturing of his own party that would prove irreparable.

The appointment of ex-investment banker and current President Emmanuel Macron as economy minister led to a U-turn that angered the party’s base, in which Hollande went from declaring the finance world his “enemy” and championing a wealth super-tax to suddenly adopting a pro-business position in 2014. 

Another controversial appointment came in the form of Manuel Valls as interior minister, who took a hard line on dismantling Roma camps in and around Paris, moved to ban union demonstrations in the city surrounding unpopular labor reforms, and supported a controversial ban on “burkini” swimwear. 

Worse still, having been elected to clean up French politics, scandals in both Hollande’s personal life and his party destroyed the image of the fair and transparent government he had promised. 

These unpopular appointments and hypocritical scandals, paired with indecision over security reform in the wake of France’s horrific terror attacks, alienated grassroots supporters from the party. 

It goes without saying that, having positioned the party as the prosecutors of Tory sleaze, any scandal that develops around a Labour government will be doubly damaging. 

Starmer’s Labour has worked hard to position itself as a pro-business party, planning to incentivise foreign investment, especially in green industries, pledging they want businesses to mould their election plans and policy agenda, and focusing on the role the private sector can play in improving public services. 

This is unlikely to change, but when in government, across an unpredictable range of policy areas, fractures often open up. We know what happens next from the cautionary tale provided to us by Hollande’s Parti Socialiste– if left unchecked, these fractures will widen, positions will become inconsistent, policy decisions will become impossible to make, and suddenly you’re thrown out of office and your party once again becomes seen as unreliable and irresponsible.

The solution is leadership, accountability and structure – with the right people empowered to make the right decisions, and a backstop of guidance and enforcement from a strong centre. Hollande was not able to offer this, but all the evidence so far suggests that Keir Starmer has what it takes.


In 2016 Hollande announced he would not run for a second term, making him the first incumbent president to not seek re-election since France’s Fifth Republic was created in 1958. He is, whether justifiably or not, remembered as the least popular French president since the second world war, with satisfaction ratings dropping as low as 4%, having brought his party to the brink of collapse.

We have explored some of the lessons this sorry story offers, but perhaps the most relevant is the simplest. Labour is fighting for the right to govern in hard times. The election battle will be fierce. This fight is essential and should be our focus, but what comes next will be even harder.