Contrary to popular impression, the second round merely confirmed how close the two rivals are—their identities as left and right candidates notwithstanding. Hollande bears little resemblance to the socialist firebrands France embraced through the era of François Mitterrand, president from 1981 to 1995. His views are closer to the German Social Democrats or British Labor than to the obsolete Marxist tradition. He did not propose nationalizing industries and banks, the core of Mitterrand’s 1980s platform. In fact, Hollande hardly mentioned the necessity for public investment to rekindle economic growth. He only cautiously promised to increase the number of teachers (the Socialist Party’s core constituency), and except for promising to close one of France’s 50 nuclear plants—a symbolic gesture to Greens—he made no attacks on nuclear energy. Above all, in a complete rebuttal of the French Socialist tradition, Hollande promised to contain public expenses and balance the budget in compliance with European treaties. He uttered not a word against the independence of the Frankfurt-based European Bank, issuer of the euro, a currency shared by 330 million Europeans in 17 countries. His only modest quibble with the German-led so-called “austerity” strategy was to suggest that the word “growth” be added to the Bank’s statutory obligations (up to now, its only duty has been to maintain price stability).
Such a shift from socialism as we knew it to a center-left social democracy considerably narrowed the ideological gap between Hollande and Sarkozy’s more rightist platform—especially since the French right has been traditionally more statist than free-market-oriented. The run-off campaign, then, was far from a clear-cut debate between a free-market right and a statist, or at least Keynesian, left. It instead became a competition for financial virtue: each candidate suggested that the other was not up to the task of reducing the public deficit.