Les Leҫons du Pouvoir, the Lessons of Power is an extensive book by Franҫois Hollande, French President 2012-2017. Books by politicians in high positions are always promising as they reveal the work done behind the curtains of media spotlights. The 500 pages of Les Leҫons du Pouvoir are only partly filled with interesting facts and events. Much of it is a description of his views, his convictions. However, there are very interesting sections that make it worth reading.
Les Leҫons du Pouvoir give the impression of a President who sees himself as a unique statesman in the first place. At some moments you think, my goodness, the ego! Then at other moments Franҫois Hollande surprises by his devotion to France, his willingness to serve, his claims of integrity and deep rooted values of liberté, égalité and fraternité. He is clearly a person who was in public positions all his life with large experience and well-founded visions.
Nevertheless his reflections hardly inspired me, maybe because of the over-abundant language he uses. Or it might be his style that is rather defensive: mentioning the arguments of his opponents to put his own arguments forward, stating how his economic measures really brought his country forward. Big events like the attacks of Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan, Nice are described but on no occasion was I as a reader ‘into’ the subject – of course not every secret can be revealed in dealing with security but he could have said more that he does. The same goes for the international visits he made, or the negociations leading to the Paris climate agreement. Les Leҫons du Pouvoir concentrates on economy, the labour market, pensions and many other internal politics, although this presidency occurred in a period and country that moved many people worldwide.
A difficulty for a non-French reader is that Les Leҫons du Pouvoir never explains the French political system or institutes, nor the abbreviations used; also names of politicians are assumed to be familiar. This book is clearly not written for the international scene although its writer underlines on several occasions that France is a major player in the international community. Franҫois Hollande focuses on the international powers that he sees as relevant to the greatness and influence of France: Germany, the USA, China, Russia. A country like the Netherlands plays no role in his memoirs.
Some of the interesting sections I particularly liked:
- His admiration of the courage of the police officer who entered the supermarket where people were taken hostage by terrorists: ‘ses chances de survie étaient bien faibles. Il n’a pas hésité une seconde’.
- His thoughts about trust as key to the state – a lack of trust can make democracies stagger
- The moment Barack Obama, Mario Monti and Franҫois Hollande try to grill Angela Merkel about euro politics; they want her to accept ‘growth over cuts’. She holds strong and follows her own road.
- His descriptions of several occasions that he wants to do or show something which is interpreted differently afterwards. For example he pays a visit to a château that has been available for all presidents’ holidays, and he walks with his partner to the beach as he wishes to have a ‘présidence normale’ but he is highly criticized – what he wants to do and express is not how the media and/or the public view it. It shows the complexity of power in relation to how it is perceived.
- The endless European gatherings; 28 people all get 5 minutes to talk in the first round which is already long, however when the Portuguese prime minister takes half an hour, he is not interrupted by the chair… He considers that it is the longlasting European peace that causes the boredom: ‘à moins que ce ne soit l‘ennui lui-même qui garantisse la paix’. One of those observations that form the pearls in this book!
- How the debate about taking away the nationality of terrorists became impossible because it remembered the French to WWII and the Vichy regime that took away the French nationality from Jews and resistance fighters – the proposal is withdrawn.
- The story of one of his ministers (‘l’affaire Cahuzac’) who is very convincing when lying to Franҫois Hollande with open eyes about his innocence, full of indignation. That is an incredible story and shows how difficult his job has been.
- His relation to Emmanuel Macron, how it started, how it grew, and how it developed with Emmanuel Macron running for president, leaving Franҫois Hollande many steps behind in the political game.
- The selection of the members of his government and the different fights they have, although the insights he gives do not explain all events concerned.
This book is about lessons learned about power, so I like to finish with 4 lessons:
1. Choose your battles – ‘à vouloir intervenir sur tout, on ne pèse sur rien’ (p. 70)
2. What counts is not the time spent to come to a decision but the traces the decision leaves in the long run (p.70)
3. Do not assume that your personal qualities like sympathy and understanding weigh more in diplomacy than the actual power relations (p.102)
4. Talking is not communicating. Don’t be too present in the media, don’t react to too many questions as people will not see or hear you any more (p.229)