There's a scene in the movie "Pretty Woman" where the kindhearted hooker played by Julia Roberts asks her client, portrayed by Richard Gere: "Who do you want me to be?" Regardless of who she might really be, she realizes that it's far less attractive than a tabula rasa onto which her client can project his own desires, and around which she can then build a tailor-made, palatable persona. It's essentially the same principle that dating-and-mating books recommend adopting when suggesting that women retain an air of mystery at the outset of a relationship and be the first to hang up in phone conversations with a man. The idea underpinning these contortions is that whoever you truly are is less attractive than whatever someone can project onto you, so you should let them continue to dream about who and what you might be for as long as possible so you can rope them in.
It's a strategy sometimes seen in politics, as well -- and in the case of the upcoming French elections set for a first round of voting this weekend, it may well be the winning strategy that determines the country's next president.
If Socialist Francois Hollande beats incumbent center-right President Nicolas Sarkozy, as the polls predict, it could largely be attributed to Mr. Hollande's "flexibility." For example, Mr. Hollande has been both for and against withdrawing France from NATO, and has now, for the time being, settled on withdrawing France from NATO in Afghanistan -- whatever that means. No one quite knows if he'd be in or out, but then again no one seems to care much, and may, in fact, prefer his approach and consider it more thoughtful and therefore less threatening.
During the 2004 U.S. presidential race between George W. Bush and John Kerry, flip-flopping and nuance were Mr. Kerry's downfall. It's accepted wisdom in politics -- particularly in the Anglosphere -- that people generally like strong, decisive leaders with clear, unwavering positions. But there appears to be a certain appeal among voters for someone who can successfully parlay indecisiveness into an image of thoughtfulness and openness. Strength and decisiveness can be spun and attacked as rigid demagoguery, while ambivalence translates into a capacity for critical thought -- which may prove to be an increasingly attractive selling point in an era rife with complex national and global problems to which solutions have yet to be found.
Mr. Hollande also benefits from a well-established precedent of French Socialists who end up being mugged by pragmatism. Some are named to serve in center-right governments and become politically indistinguishable from their colleagues. Current French Industry Minister Eric Besson, a Socialist who has also served as Mr. Sarkozy's hard-line immigration minister, comes to mind.
Similarly, Socialist French President Francois Mitterrand's election at the height of the Cold War caused U.S. President Ronald Reagan to freak out, thinking Mr. Mitterrand's government would become a Communist nest. Instead, shortly after his election, Mr. Mitterrand, like some kind of bird dog, dropped at Mr. Reagan's feet the identities of several Communist spies in what became known as the "Farewell Affair" -- resulting in America's rounding up of important technological KGB spies.
A self-described conservative in his youth, Mr. Mitterrand named a conservative, Edouard Balladur, as prime minister. After paying lip service to his party for two years, Mr. Mitterrand made a hard-right turn in his economic policies, ushering in a period of austerity and spending cuts. In his book "Conservative Socialism," Roger Kaplan explains: "[Mr. Mitterrand] could attack 'imperialism' and speak of 'breaking with capitalism' in the knowledge that he did not know, or did not really care, what he was talking about, except in its effect on the immediate political context of France, which was to rally the left, not against America or capitalism but the French right."
In other words, Mr. Mitterrand would be whatever you'd like him to be, as long as it would make you vote for him. Can't say that it didn't work -- Mr. Mitterrand served 14 years as president.
Personally, much as I prefer not to play coy little games with men, I also prefer the kind of politician who can dig in his heels and lead from the front, educating voters as he goes along, and pointing to the success of his policies as proof of their effectiveness. It's much tougher to claim victory when it sneaks in through the window at 3 a.m. and no one's really sure how it got there.
But, as with Santa Claus, sometimes people feel that in politics, it doesn't matter how the gifts got beneath the tree, just as long as they're there. Will this strategy become more appealing as the world's problems become more complex? It's entirely possible.