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France: towards a new right

The first round of France’s presidential election leaves the incumbent president, Nicolas Sarkozy, in a tight corner. Its result also presages a longer struggle over the future shape of the country's political right, says Patrice de Beer.

Patrice de Beer
1 May 2012

A first glance at the first-round result of France’s presidential election on 22 April 2012 confirmed what most media commentators and opinion-polls had been predicting, though a second glance tended to add an intriguing twist:

* The socialist (PS) candidate François Hollande received most votes, including in Paris, against his conservative rival and the incumbent president, Nicolas Sarkozy - albeit by a smaller than expected margin (28.6% vs 27%), But Hollande’s achievement is in both respects mentioned also unprecedented in French history

* The combined protest vote from extreme right to extreme left, traditionally high at this stage, remained around 30%. But the assumption that both sides would have roughly equal support was confounded when the National Front (FN) candidate Marine Le Pen gained 18% while the Left Front created by former PS member Jean-Luc Mélenchon (allied with the communists) received a less than expected 11%. Le Pen’s score is the FN's highest ever, and represents as much as 60% of the centre-right candidate’s: again unprecedented

* Most pollsters and analysts had found the campaign boring and believed that 30% or more of voters would agree to the extent of abstaining. In fact only 20% failed to vote, despite pouring rain and France being in the midst of spring holidays.

All this makes a clear Hollande victory in the second-route on 6 May look more than probable. As all pre-second-round polls have at the time of writing shown him ahead by six-to-ten points. Massive support from the Left Front and the Greens, plus a sprinkle of Trotskyites, would take him to about 45% of votes, while he can hope to gain over a third of the centrist Francois Bayrou’s 9% and about a fifth of Marine Le Pen’s (many of whom are young and vehement in their dislike of Sarkozy). By contrast, the centre-right would need all centrist and FN votes to win. A very difficult task, as many centrists are weary of the outgoing president's open courting of FN voters by stressing far-right, even anti-foreign issues.

This strategy has also shocked several of France’s European Union partners, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, while the pro-growth comments of Mario Draghi of the European central bank are a further boost for the socialist candidate who has long been pushing the same line. Yet Sarkozy is a fighter, politics can't be equated with statistics, and his victory by a whisker still can't be ruled out.

The wrong campaign

The message of the first round, however, is that this is the largest anti-incumbent vote in the history of the fifth republic. Sarkozy’s strategy of siphoning off the FN vote by adopting its stances on immigration and (non-white) foreigners, which had worked so well in 2007, now has failed. More voters cast their vote against Sarkozy than for Hollande, which will make it even harder for him to create a majority in what Le Monde’s editor has called “the two anti-Sarkozy referendums”.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the FN and Marine’s father, once joked that voters preferred the original to a copy. Indeed, the French (even some in “Sarko’s” own camp) have never really accepted their president’s style, or warmed to his abrasive and divisive personality. Some are already getting ready to fill a post-6 May vacuum if their champion is beaten. It seems likely that a more moderate and consensual conservative candidate - prime minister François Fillon or foreign minister Alain Juppé - might have done as well, or perhaps even better than Hollande.

Sarkozy's failure is that he based his election strategy on a single conservative party - his own UMP - with himself as the leader-candidate, giving none of his rivals on the right space to breathe in the first round before rallying to him in the second. Worse, he led his campaign with the ideological support of a former journalist close do the FN, ignoring to his more moderate aides. There is a French election motto: “In the first round you choose, in the second you eliminate”. This time, many voters engaged in premature elimination. Even former president Chirac - whose wife Bernadette remains a fervent Sarkozy supporter - let it leak that he would vote for Hollande.

Sarkozy thought he could easily savage an apparently bland rival he despises as a gutless, inexperienced nonentity. It has not worked out like that: Hollande so far has proved a sort of “Teflon” candidate (a description once attached to Ronald Reagan), on whom no insults or criticism, however brutal, has seemed to stick. Thus, as the campaign progressed, many voters stopped listening to Sarkozy’s daily attacks and promises (old and contradictory as many were, and always made in his trademark aggressive tone).

Hollande’s approach has proved well-judged on several levels: in its prudence and snail’s pace, in its lengthy and covert preparation to outsmart Sarkozy's expected hyperactive campaign, in its refusal to match his rival's political somersaults, and in its constant repetition that polls are not elections and request that the people deliver him a “useful” vote. Hollande was and is right to remain careful, as he won the first round by less than two points.

Moreover, the far-left populism of Jean-Luc Mélenchon - intent on dragging a president Hollande further towards his anti-capitalist line - has made less of an impact on the left than Marine Le Pen has on the right. The FN might yet shake France’s traditional political landscape to its roots: because it came third in the national vote, benefiting from a Europe-wide populist moment, and because Marine's vision resembles ever more a kind of rejuvenated Peronism: a blend of authoritarianism, rabid nationalism and reinforced state control of the economy with a token social touch to attract working-class votes and the unemployed (“the invisible France” long forgotten by the main parties).

The right future

Marine has shed her father's anachronistic version of an FN stuck in sterile opposition where he could safely indulge in his notorious racist and anti-semitic jokes. She wants power, she dreams openly of becoming the main rightwing opposition to the left and, to achieve that, she needs to begin by ousting Sarkozy. She believes that a Hollande victory will advance the UMP’s disintegration, as a beaten Sarko leaves politics in order (as he once said) to “make money”. The polls say that he should not get more than half of FN votes, the other half abstaining or voting Hollande.

Her calculation is probably right to the extent that Sarkozy is the only one able to keep together a party that unites moderate centrists who abhor Le Pen's xenophobia with rightwingers eager to steal the FN strategy (and, if necessary, strike a deal with it). Besides, a bitter power-struggle is ongoing between Fillon and the UMP general secretary, Jean-François Copé, while Juppé also has ambitions to take over the party. The centrists might be tempted to recreate the UDF founded in the 1970s by previous president Giscard d'Estaing, while a (renamed) FN could attract more radical UMP members - thus leaving a rump gaullo-chiraco-sarkozian “union” to fend for itself.

After the presidential election Marine Le Pen will seek a show of strength in the legislative elections in June, hoping to get as many MPs as possible (at present the FN has none) or at least to disrupt and damage the UMP campaign. Yet she could well be disappointed as she might receive far less votes than in the more personalised presidential contest. These elections will be crucial for Hollande too who, as president, would need a parliamentary majority to govern. As for the UMP, their aim of last resort would be to force Hollande into a new “cohabitation” (as occurred in 1986 and 1993).

This doomsday - but feasible - scenario could add a deep political crisis to the economic and social crisis a weakened France is already undergoing. Whatever the post-election political mosaic, a heavy public debt and high unemployment will be a priority for the next president and government.

A sorry footnote: the Green presidential candidate Eva Joly received just 2.2% after a disastrous campaign by the Norwegian-born former anti-corruption magistrate. As recently as in the European elections of 2009, the party - then led by the charismatic Dany Cohn-Bendit - won six times that proportion of votes. The absence of ecological issues in the debate is also a fiasco for the ecologist movement and ideas, a sad situation at a moment when green solutions are ever more crucial for the planet.

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