Marlière across La Manche: a diary of the 2012 French presidential election

Charles de Gaulle once said that the French presidential election was “an encounter between the nation and a man” (sic). Big Charles may have been right in suggesting that this election is about personality politics. There is much more to it though. Through this election diary, I invite you to follow my journey into this historic European election: analysis of results, as well as personal thoughts on candidates, debates, the media, opinion polls and the “mood” of French voters.

  • 4 May
  • 3 May
  • 2 May
  • 1 May
  • 30 April
  • 29 April
  • 28 April
  • 26 April
  • 25 April
  • 24 April
  • 23 April
  •  

    4 May: I was expecting to bump into Doris Lessing

    This election has its charming moments. Yesterday I was invited for lunch by a group of “left-wing” Londoners who meet once a month at the Gay Hussar in Soho. Some are still professionally active, but most are retired people. There was a strong contingent of solicitors and lawyers, a couple of trade-unionists and people working in management in the public services. A majority are members of the Labour party, one of them was presented to me as a “Communist Party member”; most had been at some point in the Communist Party. I was expecting to bump into Doris Lessing in the small overcrowded room where we all met. I love the Gay Hussar, the mythical place of the British Left. You first struggle with the two swing doors to enter the restaurant. On the left hand side, the wall is covered from top to bottom by rows of frames. In each frame there is a drawing representing a caricature of a well-known left-wing personality (politicians, trade-unionists, journalists). Waiters are always grumpy, but it is part of the Gay Hussar folklore. I went upstairs and entered this ridiculously small room in which the 20 members in attendance were waiting for me. The meeting time was 12.15, I got there at 12.17. My table-companions were all seated and there was no room behind the wall and the rows of chairs for me to walk to the centre of the U-shaped table. Everyone had to stand up to let me pass. When I finally reached the centre of the table, the club president told me: “When Ed Balls came here, he crawled under the table to reach his seat”. The thought of Ed Balls crawling under the table in this minuscule room made me feel like giggling. My host was one of the most delightful persons I have ever met in London. He was warm, witty and clever. He is the sort of individual who puts his hand on your arm when he speaks to you as people do in southern Europe. In my eighteen years in this country, I had never been touched by an Englishman before. My host proceeded to introduce me to the 20 members. Then we had to choose our courses from the menu. This was a solemn moment. After ordering our food, my host made a little introductory speech and gave me the floor. I spoke for about 15 minutes about the French presidential election. I had barely concluded when the waiter started to bring the hors-d’oeuvre. There was little respite for me. I had not finished eating my soup yet that the first series of questions came. I was expecting a nice, easy conversation. I was wrong: The questions were all pertinent and… complex: questions on growth, the fiscal compact, the institutional framework of the European Union, the constitution of the 5th republic and so on and so forth. I had a bit of a tough time considering that I had to carefully listen to the questions, answer and eat my goulash all at the same time. They seemed happy enough to tell me that they would invite me again in one year time to “review the situation”. It was one of the most pleasant “working lunches” that I have had ever had.

    Doris Lessing (front right) with John Osborne in 1961.
    Behind them are Sheila Delaney and Vanessa Redgrave.
    Photograph: Reg Warhurst/Associated Newspapers/Rex

    François Bayrou, the fifth man in the first round (9.1%), announced yesterday that he will vote for François Hollande despite “disagreeing with Hollande’s economic programme”. Bayrou has had a long political journey since the 1990s when he was a regular cabinet minister in all right-wing governments. He is a moderate, a Christian democrat appalled by Nicolas Sarkozy’s hard right campaign and his unashamed flirt with the Front National. I think that this late decision will not impact on Sunday’s result. To paraphrase Pierre Bourdieu, the political centre does not exist in France, it is an artefact. The centre always ends up leaning to the right. His electorate will be split: up to 40% of them might vote for Hollande because they will prefer a moderate Socialist to a man on the hard right; 40% will vote for Sarkozy because MoDem (Bayrou’s party) is a centre-right party and the rest will abstain. It is interesting to note that in this campaign the “political centre” was totally invisible. French politics is about left and right. When an election is polarised – as this one was – and when left and right propose alternative policies to voters, few people in France are attracted to this political soft belly.

    Alea iacta est. The presidential campaign will officially end today at midnight. So it is time for me to call it a day too. If on Sunday Hollande wins it by a landslide, I foresee interesting although uncertain times in France and in Europe. A large victory would give Hollande a mandate to change the political and economic course of action, notably with regards to austerity policies. In this case scenario, Hollande would have to take decisive action or he would soon despair his supporters. A narrow Hollande win would mean more centrist policies and possible talks of an alliance with Bayrou’s “centre”. Now, if Sarkozy miraculously manages to win the race, I predict social unrest for the next five years.


    3rd May: Nicolas Montana vs. François Mitterrand

    “So who won it?” asked abruptly the BBC World Service journalist minutes after the end of yesterday’s debate. Sitting on the stairs of a big hotel in South London where I watched the televised encounter (the reception hall was too noisy to make the phone interview), I talked the political science talk: Nicolas Sarkozy failed to land the killer blow, so in the worst case scenario it is a draw, blah, blah, blah. This diary does not propose a scientific assessment of the campaign. So let me phrase it as I saw it: I think Hollande emphatically beat Sarkozy. Now if you really want to know what I think deep down, let me put it the Jean-Luc Mélenchon no-waffle way: “Hollande pulverised Sarkozy”.

    Tony Montana vs François Mitterrand. Source for both images:
    Wikipedia. Public Domain.

    Yes, Sarkozy the “great performer”, the “fierce debater” (according to mainstream media), pulled no punches throughout this 3-hour long debate. Worse, he looked nervous, unconvincing, angry, and, at times, frankly scary. About 100 people had gathered in the room to watch the debate, I was sitting next to the French Consul in London. (We are no pals, it was just a coincidence.) He dozed off most of the debate. When he finally woke up toward the end, he looked downbeat and sorry. He turned to me and said: “Sarkozy, what a shame! In 2007, there was so much freshness, so much dynamism…” “… And now, he looks like a cornered rabbit”, I dryly replied to him. The Consul looked deeply offended and ostensibly turned his head in the opposite direction.

    Hollande surprised me. I knew that he would stand his ground and be a decent performer. He was more decent yesterday: combative, precise, projecting an image of calmness and authority. He ticked all the boxes to come across as “presidential material”. The British media have been unfavourably comparing Hollande to Gordon Brown. “Flamby” is allegedly dull and “lacks charisma”. Hollande may be a bit dull, but he is more articulate and witty than the former British prime minister. What is more, he has never talked Brown’s pro-financial market non-sense. Anyway, who would like another Tony Blair in 2012? The French are not that stupid, eh? Actually they were foolish enough to elect a French Thatcher thirty years late.

    Sarkozy went for a fight, but it seems that there was no real drive, no real purpose to it. He looked like he no longer believed in his victory and of course that made him irritable. He accused Hollande several times of “lying” as the pair tussled over economic figures. Hollande always had the last word. “It’s a lie, it’s a lie, it’s a lie”, Sarkozy said at one point. “I’ll take that as a complement coming from you”, Hollande shot back. On Europe, the Socialist accused the right-wing candidate of failing to stand to Angela Merkel: “You didn’t compromise with Germany, you failed to hold your own”, Hollande said. He promised to “re-orient Europe towards growth”, if he was elected. If he is true to his words, Hollande could become an unexpected European hero. On education, Sarkozy criticised Hollande’s “spending madness”. Hollande responded that he wanted to “protect the children of the republic” whereas Sarkozy “protect[s] the most privileged”.

    There was an involuntary comical moment. The incumbent president gravely remarked that France was the most heavily taxed country in Europe. Looking Sarkozy in the eyes, Hollande almost whispered back: “Who has been running the country for the past ten years, Mr Sarkozy?” The crowd was amused. Then came the killer blow (Yes, I acknowledge I did not tell the truth to my BBC interviewer). Nicolas Sarkozy at his most agitated raised the tone of the voice: “Mr Hollande, you’re a little slanderer!” The crowd burst out laughing. That was the moment the Consul woke up. By the end of the debate, Sarkozy was a nervous wreck, full of tics, looking furious. He tried one last infamous attack: “You want to give the right to vote to non-EU immigrants at local elections. This will create the conditions of a communitarian vote which is contrary to the republican tradition”. Hollande looked shocked: “Are you implying that all immigrants are Muslims? Anyway how can you assume that Muslims will vote along ethnic or religious lines?” I very much doubt that this will get Sarkozy many National Front votes. It was an infamy to play the race/religious card to divide and scare the population in an attempt to secure a few more votes.

    The key moment of the debate was Hollande’s anaphora: a three-minute peroration with all sentences starting with “I, president…I will, etc.” repeated 16 times! The rhetorical device was rather impressive. The contents were even better. If elected, Hollande promised to be an anti-Sarkozy: the judiciary and the media will be protected from the encroachment of political power; the president will be prosecuted if there is evidence that he broke the law before or during his time in office, etc. This was a sweet revenge for the past five years and a moment of happiness for everyone on the left in France.

    While I was watching one of the best presidential debates of the past 30 years, my mind could not help wandering around: on the right, I imagined a cantankerous Nicolas Montana and on the left, François Mitterrand, the man of “quiet strength”.

     

    2 May: May Day gate-crashing

    May Day is a celebration and a struggle for workers’ rights around the world. The origin of May Day lies in the fight for an eight-hour working day, a cause supported by the socialist Second International from 1890 onwards. Contrary to what a large number of people say, May Day is not about celebrating “work”, let alone “real work” as Nicolas Sarkozy infamously put it earlier this week. Yet, both the UMP and FN joined the May Day celebrations this year. They organised mass rallies in the centre of Paris. These were scenes as puzzling as seeing staunch republicans gate-crashing the Queen’s jubilee party. Why were they there in the first place? As an UMP official candidly acknowledged, we are days away from the decisive second round and Sarkozy had to be seen as well.

    Melenchon May DayJean-Luc Mélenchon in the May Day demonstration, Paris.
    Photo: © Elli Medeiros

    Marine Le Pen perpetuated her father’s invented tradition (in 1988) by gathering her supporters at the Place de l’Opéra by the Joan of Arc statue. The extreme-right leader revealed the worst kept secret on the campaign trail: she won’t be voting for either of the two frontrunners on Sunday. She will cast, as the French say, a “blank vote”. Why would she call her supporters to vote for Sarkozy when she wholeheartedly hopes that the incumbent president will lose on Sunday? A defeated and weak right would boost her ambitions to become the leader of the main party on the right.

    Sarkozy’s intentions were very different. He thinks that he can win this election by wooing Le Pen’s electorate. There was no attempt to make the event look “popular”. It was set at the Place du Trocadero against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower. Place Trocadero is located in the 16e arrondissement, the poshest and most exclusive area in Paris. There, the president could address “ordinary workers” who are not unionised and do not demonstrate holding red flags. When Sarkozy shouted: “We don’t want Socialism!”, the crowd erupted.

    Each passing day, the UMP candidate’s campaign drifts further to the right. In the morning on RMC radio, Sarkozy had unashamedly said that “there are too many immigrants in France”: immigrants, trade-unions, left-wingers, people living on benefits, Sarkozy has a long list of “enemies within”. At the rally, mentions of national identity, French Christian heritage and the defence of borders sounded hopelessly off the mark in a laïque country hit by a deep economic recession. Jean-Luc Mélenchon remarked earlier this week that had he been ahead of Marine Le Pen in the first round, the two frontrunners would now be debating the questions that really concern the French (unemployment, wages, the state of public services), instead of the FN’s scaremongering agenda on law and order. I saw on TV Sarkozy’s supporters wearing tee-shirts bearing a photograph of General de Gaulle: “He saved France, so did Nicolas Sarkozy”. Why didn’t anyone think of that before?

    The crowd was enthusiastic and in a combative mood. Several journalists reported that they had been abused and some were even physically threatened. Sarkozy has started to pick on journalists as he accuses them of being partial. It is a surprising allegation because the biggest media in France are the property of some of his very close friends and political supporters.

    The unions organised up to 300 demonstrations gathering together a million people across France (of which 250,000 were in Paris). Observers reported that there were four times as many demonstrators as last year. Sarkozy’s Trocadero show apparently galvanised the Left. The demonstrations were colourful and joyful, with a rare show of unity from the unions.

    François Hollande was in Nevers in the Nièvre department to commemorate Pierre Bérégovoy, a former Socialist prime minister under François Mitterrand, who shortly after a PS electoral debacle shot himself on 1 May 1993. This was a strong symbolic choice. Bérégovoy’s monetary policies were deeply unpopular, but he was respected as a person. A working-class man, a trade-unionist and a humble and quiet individual, Bérégovoy’s suicide shocked France. Hollande praised trade-unionists in general and said that they should be defended, not attacked. He argued that “trade-unionists fulfil the most important of jobs. They are there to protect the weak and poor from getting the sack and to give them dignity”. For the first time since the beginning of the campaign, I felt that Hollande genuinely identified with an old socialist constituency: working-class voters.

     

    This post is dedicated to Aliette Guibert-Certhoux and Elli Medeiros.

     

    1 May: For Hollande, cracking jokes is no laughing matter

    François Hollande wants to be seen by the public as the “Mr. Normal” of French politics: calm, measured and reassuringly honest. In short, he wants to be seen as Nicolas Sarkoy’s antithesis. Hollande’s “normality” is reflected in the polls. In the first round of the presidential election, “Mr Normal” was in electoral terms “Mr Catch-all”. The socialist candidate fared well across all social classes; with men as well as women. Compared to all other candidates, this consistency is remarkable. “Mr Normal” is not average though. He is on course to beat the incumbent president. According to today’s polls, Hollande is still 7 points ahead of Sarkozy, which is an unusually large gap at this stage of the race. Evidently, these are only polls and we shall see on Sunday whether Hollande manages “to inflict a crushing defeat” on Sarkozy. (To paraphrase Jean-Luc Mélenchon)

    Appearances are deceptive. Because Hollande wants to impose a 75% income tax on earnings above 1 million euros and has talked about adding growth provisions to the EU fiscal compact, I hear City analysts crying wolf. How droll. Hollande is the quintessential moderate. He was the PS leader for 11 years and during that time he managed to preserve the unity of this most fractious party. He comes from the rightwing of the PS. In his younger days, he was close to Jacques Delors and other “social Christians”. This is hardly synonymous with left radicalism. Hollande studied at HEC – a well-known business school in Paris, then ENA, the Grande Ecole which trains the country’s political elite. He is not an old-fashioned intellectual in the Mitterrand mould, but a sharp technocrat. Like most politicians today, he is ideologically adaptable and ambiguous. Asked on France Culture who were his political mentors, he gave a long eclectic list of names: the Dreyfusard Bernard Lazare, Jaurès, Blum, de Gaulle, Jean Moulin, Henri IV, Marquis de Condorcet, Victor Hugo, Clemenceau and Salvador Allende. He is not interested in political ideas and reads few books. Hollande is above all a pragmatist. If he trounces Sarkozy in the polls on Sunday, Hollande may have to govern on the left. If he narrowly wins, he might turn to François Bayrou and the centre.

    When attending PS executive meetings, Hollande used to infuriate Jean-Luc Mélenchon (who left the party in 2008). Mélenchon complained that every time Hollande was put in an awkward position, he would stop debating seriously and start making light-hearted comments or even cracking jokes to diffuse the tension. In 1999, Hollande and a PS delegation came to London to meet with Tony Blair. I was a member of Hollande’s party at the time so I was invited to join the French delegation. When we left Downing Street, Hollande matter of factly asked me whether Blair’s third way could be imported into France. I replied that anything is importable, but I warned that an attempt to bring to France Blair’s “Thatcherism with a human face” would result in the annihilation of the French left. Hollande looked bored. Before I could even finish my peroration, he put his hand on my shoulder and with a smile on his face he proceeded to tell me one of his trademark jokes.

     

    30 April: Which infamy, Mr.President?

    A “lie” and an “infamy orchestrated by François Hollande’s supporters”: this was Nicolas Sarkozy’s reaction to yesterday’s stunning revelation by Mediapart, a news website. Mediapart says that it has documented evidence proving that the Gaddafi regime illegally funded Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign. The document refers to a meeting that allegedly took place in 2006 between Brice Hortefeux, Sarkozy’s close ally, and Ziad Takieddine, a Franco-Lebanese businessman and a “middleman” between the Libyan regime and Sarkozy’s circles. Takkiedine has been at the centre of several financial scandals involving rightwing politicians in France and Middle East countries. He is now under investigation by French justice for serving as an intermediary in a deal to fund Edouard Balladur’s 1995 campaign. Balladur’s campaign manager at that time was none other than Nicolas Sarkozy.

    Contacted by Mediapart, Takkiedine said that although he was not present at the meeting, the document appears to be genuine. In an article published today, Edwy Plenel, Mediapart’s editor-in-chief, stands by the story. He strongly defends the probity and professionalism of his journalists and argues that press freedom is not a “journalist’s prerogative”, but a “citizens’ right”. Plenel suggests that Sarkozy detests Mediapart because unlike other media in France, he can’t influence, bully or threaten the website’s journalists. Insults and no proper answer to these extremely serious accusations: this is what we have had so far from the Sarkozy camp. If those allegations are an “infamy”, Mr President – and they truly are - why don’t you sue Mediapart for slander? Having read Mediapart’s extensive reports on Takkiedine’s various shabby deals, I am convinced that Sarkozy will not sue the news website.

    In the meantime, Sarkozy’s hard right campaign on immigration and law and order is alarming more and more UMP officials. They fear that if the incumbent president loses next Sunday, the UMP might implode. At a rally in Toulouse on Sunday, Nicolas Sarkozy exalted “the love of fatherland”, “French identity” and the “defence of France’s border”, which is allegedly key to sorting out all major problems including immigration and economic issues. More confrontational than ever, he promised that on Labour Day, ordinary workers will be marching behind the tricolour banner whereas Hollande will be behind the CGT’s red flag.

    Several UMP officials have already had enough with their party’s “LePenisation”. In an article published in Le Monde over the weekend, Dominique de Villepin said he was “appalled” by Sarkozy’s drift toward the extreme right. Etienne Pinte, a close ally of François Fillon, argued that the French are not worrying first and foremost about immigration, national identity and border control, but about unemployment, wages or housing. Senator Jean-René Lecerf told Europe 1 that he was dumbfounded that Patrick Buisson, a man of extreme right sympathies, could be Sarkozy’s special campaign advisor. Lecerf taught me constitutional law in the 1980s. He is a “social Gaullist”. Contrary to Sarkozy, he understands that workers have to fight to defend their economic situation and professional status.

    One day, students were on strike over the question of tuition fees. Some of us decided to occupy his class. Lecerf spent the whole hour arguing against our position from a Gaullist perspective. Afterwards, he never harboured any hard feelings against us.

     

    29 April: Muammar Gaddafi’s ghost bites back

    After Marshall Pétain’s cameo earlier this week, Muammar Gaddafi’s ghost has invited himself to the campaign. Mediapart, a respected news website, has revealed today that Gaddafi’s regime had agreed to fund Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign to the tune of 50 million euros. Mediapart produced a 2006 document in Arabic which was signed by Gaddafi’s foreign intelligence chief. The letter referred to an “agreement in principle” to support Sarkozy’s campaign. All major media have mentioned the story. Will they hold the president to account? I wouldn’t hold my breath. Most French journalists are tame and deferential to powerful politicians. The most servile of them, smelling blood, have started to be a bit more combative of late. But this is too little and too late.

    Mediapart has been by far the best news media of the campaign. This is investigative journalism at its best; a rarity in the French media landscape. French newspapers and news websites are essentially opinion media: few facts and investigation on the ground, but endless punditry. The news website was launched in 2008 by Edwy Plenel, a former Le Monde editor-in-chief. This is quality journalism proposing longish and extremely well-researched pieces. They take politics seriously and publish interesting and meaningful stories. Mediapart is a paying site (well worth the money!) backed by enthusiastic subscribers who can run their own blog in the site free access section. The worst media of the campaign: the ever declining Le Nouvel Observateur and Libération (both close to the Parti Socialiste) who have spent a lot of time attempting to rubbish Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s reputation with ludicrous allegations when the Left Front candidate was credited with about 15% in the polls.

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn (also known as “DSK”) gave an interview to The Guardian yesterday. Although he did not believe that he had been set up, he claimed that the Sofitel events were “shaped by his political opponents”. Sarkozy declared that he should keep quiet and “spare the French his remarks”. I am shocked to find myself in agreement with Sarkozy. Last May, DSK was only days away from announcing his candidature to the Parti Socialiste primary election which he would most certainly have won. The economically ultraliberal (and despicable) Strauss-Kahn would have represented the Left against Sarkozy. We were narrowly spared this apocalyptic scenario.

     

    On Wednesday evening, I was invited by the London School of Economics to discuss the presidential election with one Sciences Po colleague from Paris. There was a question from the floor about Europe, or to put it more precisely, about the absence of Europe in the campaign. I replied that with the exception of Nicolas Sarkozy - one of the architects of the increasingly unpopular Merkozy axis - Europe featured in most candidates’ speeches and proposals. Of the four main candidates, only Marine Le Pen would like France to leave the eurozone. Jean-Luc Mélenchon wants to submit the fiscal compact to a popular referendum and draft a new treaty. François Hollande proposes to amend aspects of the existing treaty. Only Sarkozy defends the treaty which promises austerity policies to all member states in the long-term future.

    Discussions on European integration in France are more “politicised” in France than in Britain. Since the “no vote” on the European constitutional treaty in 2005, the national debate is no longer between partisans of further integration (federalists or integrationists) and advocates of further national sovereignty (intergovernmentalists or sovereignists). It opposes two conceptions of European integration: a “leftwing” one (or Keynesian) and a “rightwing” one (or neoliberal). Among the four main candidates, Le Pen is the only true Eurosceptic à la UKIP. It is no surprise that Nigel Farage was praising the Front National’s European policies on the BBC this week.

    A Hollande victory next week would open up a debate about a change in the eurozone’s economic strategy. A leftwing president would press his European partners to take action to reverse the downward spiral of negative growth and rising unemployment. Hollande hopefully should try to inject a note of dissent into the pro-austerity consensus in Europe. Hollande’s plan remains unclear at this stage, but he is on record as saying that he would negotiate a series of “additional measures” rather than an actual revision of the treaty. He wants Europe to concentrate on growth measures and allow the European Central Bank to loan money to the European Stability Mechanism. The ECB should also be obliged to pursue growth objectives as well as prices stability.

    The pro-market media have tried to ridicule Hollande’s “delusion of grandeur”. Would he be isolated? That remains to be seen. Mario Draghi, the ECB president, Mariano Rajoy in Spain and even Mario Monti (“Signore Austerità”) in Italy, have all demanded the implementation of growth measures as well. We shall see, but one thing is certain: a Sarkozy re-election would terminate the debate and lead to the hardening of Merkozy’s austerity programme. 

     

     

    28 April: Which Europe?

     

    Blasé pundits in France have lamented a “dull” campaign and pollsters had predicted a low turnout. Both got it wrong. I think that this has been one of the most captivating presidential races since the 1980s. More importantly, it has been a polarised campaign. Candidates have stood their corner and fought for their ideas: Le Pen has proved a formidable competitor; Sarkozy has been clearly on the right (and not on the “centre right”); Hollande has behaved like a proper social democrat (not like a Blairite free-marketeer), and Mélenchon has resurrected a credible left-wing alternative to social democracy (not a “loony left” one).

    Melenchon rally Demotix/Samuel Jouglet-Marcus. A rally in support of the
    leftist Presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

    One of the most striking features of this campaign has been the return of mass rallies. They were never exactly out of fashion in France, but this time they have made a spectacular come-back. Why bother to organise costly mass rallies in the age of new technologies and alleged political apathy, though? Do they help convince voters? There is no scientific answer to that, but my guess is that mass rallies essentially attract the converted.

    So why have any? I think that they help galvanise and mobilise supporters. For candidates, it helps them to make a political statement in front of the cameras: a well attended rally with enthusiastic crowds looks good on television, and gives the impression of momentum behind the candidate.

    Jean-Luc Mélenchon was largely responsible for giving mass rallies a new lease of life. Commentators agreed that he was the best and most inspiring orator of the campaign. His rallies drew impressive and enthusiastic crowds. “La prise de la Bastille” (“The storming of the Bastille”) in Paris was symbolically charged. In Toulouse (a city with an anti-fascist tradition since the Spanish civil war) Mélenchon paid tribute, in Spanish, to the “heroes of the Republican republic”. Over 120,000 people gathered by the seaside to hear Mélenchon praise the “Arabic heritage” of Marseille, the city with the highest number of mixed marriages in Europe. This was a brave thing to do in one of the Front National’s bastions.

    I have heard Mélenchon speak countless times in public, and he is not simply a mesmerising orator. His speeches are complex and carefully crafted. Unlike “modern” politicians, his sentences are long, full of historical references, peppered with lines of poetry and other literary citations. Like a school teacher, he is a pedagogue. When he makes a point, he wants to demonstrate it from A to Z. He believes that rallies are not places where people should hysterically shout the name of a candidate, but where they should “collectively reflect”.

    Sarkozy’s and Hollande’s rallies were less well attended, quieter and more professionally organised. Days before the first round, both spoke before large crowds in Place de la Concorde and in Vincennes.

    Finally, mass rallies are fun to attend. They are a moment of political socialisation for the young and they create what Emile Durkheim called a situation of “collective effervescence”. I have had first-hand experience of that. In 1988, I attended François Mitterrand’s rally in Lille. When he eventually joined us (some two hours late) he was followed by a group of intellectual and show-biz courtesans. The crowd went absolutely mad. People were pushing each other to get close to the president to touch him as if he was some thaumaturge king. I remember Mitterrand’s Mona Lisa smile and the look of panic on his bodyguard's face.

    Political rallies end with songs in France, so I’ll end with one too. Traditional songs like The International or La Marseillaise are often played, while popular songs can also become campaign hits. This year, HK & Les Saltimbanks’s “On Lâche Rien!” (We don’t give up!) closed Mélenchon’s rallies with youthful energy.

     

     

    26 April: Mass rallies are back

     

    Nicolas Sarkozy is fighting for his political life and he will use every trick in the book to stay at the Elysée Palace. He faces the challenge of wooing a very large majority of Marine Le Pen’s voters (17.9%). Expect more hard-right rhetoric, posturing... and more anti-left attacks. The president will try to win this second round by dividing and polarising the French, which is an unusual and high-risk strategy at this stage of the race.

    The rapprochement of the traditional right with its extreme form is progressing fast. Yesterday in Longjumeau, Sarkozy declared that the Front National is “compatible with the republic”. This was an unheard-of and extraordinary statement; one that Jacques Chirac would never have made. A process of “de-demonisation” of the FN is clearly on. What next? A UMP-FN coalition government if he is re-elected on 6 May?

    Yesterday, Nicolas Sarkozy also announced that his party would organise a mass demonstration on 1 May – Labour Day – in Paris. The president said that this would be an event to celebrate “real work”; those who “get up early, work hard to earn less than those who do not work”. Was he referring to rentiers? No, he was taking a dig at unionised public workers, nurses, teachers or civil servants; people who demonstrate on Labour Day, not to celebrate work, but “to defend their status”. As ever a “man of the people”, Sarkozy wants to champion the hard-working, low-earning people, who do not complain, who do not demonstrate and who do not live on benefits. In short, he wants to appeal to “real workers”, those who happen to vote for the right, notably the FN.

    It is ironic that a president who has generalised low-cost and flexible work (for those who can get any work at all) and who has postponed retirement age for all – should be pontificating about the virtues of “real work”, and antagonising trade-unions and public sector workers. Sarkozy does not like the latter because they have the impudence to defend their (deteriorating) working conditions.

    French trade unions and the left have obviously denounced this decision as a major provocation. The two major unions (CGT and CFDT) as well as several parties on the left (PS, Left Front and NPA) have called for the unity of workers and the biggest demonstration in years. Sarkozy’s plan may backfire – as it may help unite the left.

    What is Labour Day? It is not a day to celebrate “work”, but the symbol of workers’ struggles and unity of action since 1884. Back then, American workers chose that day to campaign for the eight-hour working day. Since 1889, the Second Socialist International have established 1 May as the day when unions – supported by socialist parties – put forth their demands and also mount a show of unity. Sarkozy’s demonstration on 1 May is undoubtedly designed to polarise the French working population.

    As a tactic, Nicolas Sarkozy’s objective to split the French labour movement and make categories of workers gang up against other categories of workers, belongs to the far right. In 1988, after the first round of the presidential election, Jean-Marie Le Pen made a similar move on Labour Day. He called for the celebration of “work and Joan of Arc”; an historical figure who incarnates national resistance against foreigners. In truth, Sarkozy’s celebration of “work” has Petainist overtones. Marshall Pétain and his collaborationist regime praised the values of “Work, Family and Homeland” in occupied France. Pétain was the first right-wing politician who tried to hijack Labour Day by making it a bank holiday on... 24 April (Saint Philippe’s day!). In 1941, Pétain declared: “1 May has been so far a symbol of division and hatred. From now on, it will be a symbol of union and friendship, because it will celebrate work and workers. Work is the most noble and dignified means at our disposal to master our destiny”. This year, thanks to Nicolas Sarkozy, Marshall Pétain will put in a cameo appearance on Labour Day.

     

     

    25 April: Marshall Pétain puts in a cameo appearance

     

    What will the 6.4 million who voted for Marine Le Pen do in the second round? Nicolas Sarkozy needs to capture a very large fraction of the 17.9% who cast their vote for the Front National if he is to stand a chance of being re-elected in two weeks time. Sarkozy has led a very right-wing campaign so far in which the themes of immigration, law and order and defence of the borders have prominently featured. Patrick Buisson, an influential advisor with an extreme-right pedigree, has convinced Sarkozy that this strategy will keep him in power. The president has confessed that if he had not matched Le Pen’s hard right rhetoric, he would by now find himself in an even more desperate position.

    This strategy is not only politically shameful and dangerous, but it is also arithmetically flawed. According to an Ipsos poll carried out on Sunday, 60% of Le Pen supporters consider voting Sarkozy in the second round; 18 will choose François Hollande and 22% will abstain. Yet various polls have also indicated that Hollande will emphatically defeat Sarkozy in the runoff (Ipsos: 54% vs. 46% BVA: 53% v. 47%; Harris Interactive: 54% vs. 46%; Ifop: 54.5% vs. 45.5% and CSA: 56% vs. 44%). Sarkozy seems to have reached a ceiling among FN voters and cannot expect further transfers. He has nowhere to find the votes to catch up on his socialist rival. According to Ipsos, François Bayrou’s votes (centre right) are split in three equal parts: 33% prefer Hollande, 32% will support Sarkozy and 35% will abstain. Clearly, Sarkozy’s shift to the right has put off most centrist voters. Conversely, 86% of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s voters will cast their vote for Hollande, while 11% will abstain and 3% will choose Sarkozy. The incumbent president cannot expect to gain many votes from abstentionists as participation can hardly be higher in the second round than the 80% turnout in the first round.

    Supporters of the radical left may not be keen on Hollande’s moderate programme but they above all abhor Sarkozy and want him out. They will use the Hollande vote to do just that. On the extreme-right, voters are much more ambivalent with regard to the incumbent president. Most of them harshly criticise his record on the economy, immigration and the “defence of the French identity”. He is often described as “untrustworthy”, a “liar” and a man who has at heart the best interests, not of “ordinary French workers”, but of the “ Brussels elites”. The FN electorate has a significant working class component (29%; although one should bear in mind that abstention among blue-collar workers in France reaches 70%). These working-class voters are disdainful of a president who portrays himself as an ‘outsider’ or a ‘man of the people’. They are well aware of his luxurious lifestyle and they realise that he has consistently favoured the rich since 2007. Sarkozy is not one of them, but the main representative of ‘globalised capitalism’ in France; a president who has done nothing to slow down immigration. Many of them voted for Sarkozy in the first round of the 2007 election. They now feel betrayed and angry. Some would rather vote for Hollande who will protect them more on socio-economic issues. Furthermore, Hollande is seen by many ‘frontistes’ as a “decent” individual.

    This segment of FN supporters is fast growing. These lower-middle and working-class voters tend to live in rural and suburban areas, but also in former industrialised regions (Nord-Pas-Calais and the North-East). These regions have been hit hard by the economic crisis and have high unemployment rates. These individuals are the losers of economic globalisation and feel despised by the “Paris elites” who vote PS or UMP. They are class conscious and support more egalitarian policies, but they above all value the preservation of national identity which, they argue, is threatened by relentless waves of immigration. Although they do not consider themselves ‘left-wing’; and even less ‘socialist’, they can easily switch their vote to any socialist or leftwing candidate in the second round of an election.

    Some considered voting for Jean-Luc Mélenchon but eventually chose to back Le Pen. Mélenchon’s socio-economic programme, however appealing it may have been to some of them, presented one crippling default: it did not address the question of immigration; worse it seemed to welcome it. For those FN voters, immigration is the ultimate weapon of Capital against working-class people.

     

    23 April: Nicolas Sarkozy fights for his political life

    For the first time in the Fifth republic, an incumbent president was beaten into second place in a first round marked by a solid turnout (80.16%). Nicolas Sarkozy has qualified for the second round, but François Hollande is on course to become the next French president.

    Sarkozy, the right-wing candidate, has ended his presidential term with an electoral disaster. Over the past few weeks, he has constructed a political Frankenstein, whose first name is Marine. Mrs Le Pen has demonstrated time and again during the campaign that the Front National remains the same xenophobic party, always intent on polarising voters with race politics: from halal meat to immigration or policies of “national preference”, the FN continues to play to the traditional tune of the old extreme-right. Le Pen can be grateful to Sarkozy. His very right-wing campaign was Le Pen’s stepping stone for her own success. Sarkozy should know that when it comes to hard right rhetoric, voters always “prefer the original to the copy”.

    The first round results show that France is polarised and deeply divided. Sarkozy is fighting for his political life and I predict a nasty battle full of dirty tricks. In his address to his supporters last night, the president gave us a foretaste of things to come in the next two weeks. He promised to defend France from (illegal) immigration and there will be more talk on law and order.

    Sarkozy’s right-wing campaign aimed to siphon off Le Pen’s voters. This strategy was designed by Patrick Buisson, an influential political advisor and former editor-in-chief of Minute, a far-right publication. It was successful in 2007, but it backfired this time round. Now Sarkozy faces a Cornelian dilemma: either he continues with this hard right stance and totally alienates François Bayrou’s centrist electorate (9.11%), or he shifts to the centre in which case he will lose the support of FN voters. Early signs are that Sarkozy will pursue his right-wing strategy and that he will push to extremity a personalised duel with Hollande. Sarkozy will not concentrate on policy details, but he will try to pick a playground fight with his socialist opponent. He will make the most of his alleged “superior leadership qualities” to win the hearts and minds of French voters. Marine Le Pen will do anything she can to help Hollande defeat Sarkozy, as she is to benefit from the defeat of the UMP, the governing party.

    Early estimates show that the vote transfers from Bayrou to Sarkozy and from Le Pen to Sarkozy will be mediocre in the second round which makes a Hollande victory likely. Furthermore, the total votes for the left: 43.87% compared to the 47% for the right and extreme right, has never been so favourable to the left since 1981. In 2007, the left totalled 36.5% against 45% for the right; and in 2002, 42.8% against 48.4%.

    François Hollande finds himself in a strong position. He got the highest share of the votes for any left-wing candidate (François Mitterrand in 1981 and Ségolène Royal in 2007 had both secured 25.8%). The moderate Hollande does not arouse any public enthusiasm, but his prudent campaign has proved strategically astute. He has received the backing of Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Left Front) and Eva Joly (Green) without entering any negotiations with them. Centrist he was, centrist he will be until the May 6. He should receive a strong support from Mélenchon’s (11.13%) and Joly’s voters (2.27%). He has behind him a unified and disciplined Parti Socialiste which contrasts with Sarkozy’s increasing isolation in his own camp.

    The other major event of this first round was the emergence and strong showing of the Left Front, a new electoral coalition of left-wing forces. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, its candidate, led a dynamic campaign which drew impressive and enthusiastic crowds at each of his rallies. He is below the 15% that polls credited him with at some point, but his actual result remains impressive considering that he was promised a mere 4% of the votes six months ago. Supported by the Communist Party (PCF) whose candidate received 1.9% of the share of the votes in 2007, the Left Front is no nostalgic revival of 1970s class politics. It is a new party economically anticapitalist, but open to green and gender politics as well as to citizen’s direct participation in decision making. Mélenchon was the only candidate to successfully take on Marine Le Pen in television debates. Mélenchon believes that there will not be any left-wing revival in France and in Europe as long as the extreme-right is in a position to blur the left-right divide by playing the race card.

     

    About the author

    Philippe Marlière is a Professor in French and European Politics at University College London (UK). Philippe blogs here and here, and tweets @PhMarliere.

    He is a regular contributor to Le Monde, Le Monde diplomatique and The Guardian.

    His major publications include:

    La Social-démocratie domestiquée. La voie blairiste (Aden, 2008)

    La Mémoire socialiste. Sociologie du souvenir politique en milieu partisan (L’Harmattan, 2007)

    La Troisième voie dans l’impasse. Essais sur le New Labour et Tony Blair (Syllepse, 2003)

    Social democratic parties in the European Union. History, organisation, policies (Macmillan, 1999) 

    Jean Jaurès et son discours à la jeunesse (La Nacelle, 1995).