There is an old rule in French politics: nice weather chases the voters away, as the attraction of going to the beach or watching pretty girls or boys from a café terrace is too strong. After 22 April 2007, the rule will have to be changed: a record 84.6% of voters went to the polls to select two candidates from the twelve standing for the decisive second-round run-off on 6 May. The result put Nicolas Sarkozy (outgoing interior minister and president of the ruling Union pour un Mouvement Populaire [Union for a Popular Movement / UMP] party in first place with 31.1% of the votes, followed by Ségolène Royal (the Parti Socialiste [PS] candidate) with 25.8%.
The turnout shows how crucial this election is for the French people, and this offers a further twist to a theme I have developed in this series of articles: that France is a country of paradoxes. For what happened on Sunday was that the French - the same people whose vision of their country is full of gloom and doom, who despise politicians even more than journalists, who have lost confidence in politics, who consider that they live in one of the worst places when it comes to the economic, social and law and order situation, who took the idea of a "protest vote" to its limit in 2002 by pushing the extreme-right Jean-Marie Le Pen to the second round at the expense of socialist Lionel Jospin - flocked in record numbers to select a new president. Even more, they have shunned the nine protest-vote candidates, or almost: Le Pen, in fourth position, has his worst score in twenty years (10.51% against 16.8% in 2002), the once-powerful Communist Party marched further towards irrelevance with a dismal 1.94%, while the five remnant "left of the left" figures and the Greens are at an all-time low of 8.5%.
Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde.
Among Patrice de Beer's articles in openDemocracy:
"Paris in flames: the limits of repression" (November 2005)
"France's immigration myths"
(9 February 2006)
"Law and disorder in France" (March 2006)
"France's crisis after crisis" (April 2006)
"The Ségolène phenomenon"
"Indigènes: enlarging France's history" (October 2006)
"Ségolène Royal: the power of difference" (November 2006)
"French politics: where extremes meet "
(4 December 2006)
"Nicolas Sarkozy, the American candidate"
(20 December 2006)
"France's immigration politics"
(12 February 2006)
"Why is the left so gauche?"
(26 February 2007)
"François Bayrou, the extreme centre's champion"
(12 March 2007)
"France's telepolitics: showbiz, populism, reality" (2 April 2007)
"France's intellectual election" (16 April 2007)A third-way idealism
A first glance suggests that French politics is "back to normal" and that voters have once again opted for a traditional right-left duel: "Sarko" vs "Ségo". But in reality, neither champion of these respective currents fits the perception of those far from the indecipherable intricacies of French politics.
Sarkozy is not a new Maggie Thatcher or Ronald Reagan. Like all French politicians, he won't discard the economic tools of power available to governments. Despite his declarations in favour of economic liberalism, which frighten so many people here, he remains at heart an interventionist (he even promised leftwing voters that he would stop the outsourcing of French industries).
Royal too is not an unreconstructed French socialist clinging to worn-out clichés, as she has been portrayed repeatedly in the foreign media. True, she has had to project some of the leftist ideas PS militants still believe in. But she has also begun to transform her party's vision of the world: by wooing middle and small businesses, by looking for ideas in social-democratic Scandinavia and quoting Tony Blair (the latter anathema to many socialists), by criticising aspects of the 35-hour working week, by being tough on law and order, and by discarding the PS's moribund, thirty-year-old strategy of seeking a "union of the left" (see "Why is the left so gauche?", 26 February 2007).
In this comparative flexibility in relation to "their own" side, both leading candidates are trying to open the door to the centre's standard-bearer: the head of the Union for French Democracy (UDF), the "third man", who polled impressively respectably on 22 April with 18.57%, whose voters now present a seductive target to Sarko and Sègo alike - François Bayrou.
The two contenders will fight to the finish on their own terms. But if it is significant that voters have given them 57% of their votes (against a mere 35% for Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin in 2002), it is equally so that they have complicated calculations by awarding Bayrou almost three times what he received five years ago.
Bayrou's voters thus become the kingmakers of the second round. It is a piquant outcome for a figure ridiculed by cartoonists, who was first despised then (when he began eating into their traditional electoral larder) feared by his rivals. His success was to attract voters disgruntled by many years of confrontational policy, dreamed of politicians cooperating for the common good and were attracted by his promise that, if elected, he would form a government of the best qualified people from the moderate right and left. It could be called a new "third way" á la Blair or Clinton - but French-style, vague but attractive, and with a big dollop of idealism.
The kingmaker's choice
So when most media and analysts are concentrating on the charismatic duellists, it's worth retaining a focus on the man who has so disrupted France's bipolar politics (and who might yet hold the balance of power after May's legislative elections if his UDF survives the entreaties of Sarkozy's underlings to return to the UMP fold, and if the PS or the UMP fail to achieve an absolute majority).
Bayrou's political achievement is already amazing: the former teacher and horse-breeder has managed to resurrect a centre that has long resembled an ever-retreating horizon (see "François Bayrou, the extreme centre's champion", 12 March 2007). The UDF, after its years of glory under Giscard d'Estaing's presidency in the 1970s, had for years been reduced to rump status as auxiliary to the monolithic neo-Gaullist UMP, allotted portfolios but no real power. Bayrou's revolt against this party had at first appeared quixotic, even laughable; now, with 6.8 million voters, it came near to bearing real fruit and leaves both the main camps desperately in need of his support.
In order to win, Sarkozy and Royal require at least half of Bayrou's votes. The result is the launch after the first round of two competing and blatant charm offensives: with Royal offering Bayrou an "open and public dialogue" on "values" and Sarkozy promising an open government and a grand coalition uniting the left and the centre with his rightwing party. So far, Bayrou is promising that "French politics will never be like before"; his closest advisor echoes him in saying that the UDF is "not for sale". But Bayrou doesn't control the loyalty of all who voted for him; and he will find it difficult to choose between a left he has opposed most of his life and a right he is fighting to retain his independence. In that event, how will his new breed of followers - many of whom are close to Sarkozy on economics but to Royal on Europe, society and "values" - vote?
At present, the odds are that Sarkozy's lead in the first round gives him a decisive edge. But an impressive, catch-all campaign in which he promised something to everyone ("except to cats and dogs", said a Green) doesn't guarantee him victory. Sarkozy can't rely on the support from any other candidate that Royal can from the far left. He needs core Front National (FN) voters; but Le Pen is reluctant to help the man who, as he said, "stole" his platform and so many of his voters, sending the 78-year-old neo-fascist dinosaur to a long-awaited political retirement.
In addition, Sarkozy must convince those who chose Bayrou that he has moderated his hard-line stance on internal security and immigration, and that he is truly ready to share some power with them. But for a man who is feared by a majority of French people, he is also popular, even among the working classes.
Ségolène Royal's task, meanwhile, is more difficult than Sarkozy's. She may have received a first-round vote on a par with François Mitterrand's in 1981, but she is weakened by the vanishing influence of the gauche de la gauche. Where Sarkozy benefits from a united party, she has to keep the PS and the far left united while wooing centrists and moderate conservatives under the banner of a modern social democracy.
Ségo has already said that she is no more the PS's candidate alone, but that surely won't be enough. In a male-dominated political world, where news of her gaffes is circulated more readily than of Sarkozy's, she must - once again - convince both a sceptical public opinion and the distrustful socialist "elephants" of her capabilities (Eric Besson, until February 2007 in charge of economic policy at the PS and editor of a book on "the American neo-con with a French passport", has joined Sarko's team out of personal hatred for Ségo). It is still hard to be a woman in politics, and without the toughness and determination Royal has shown for the last two years she would have been buried long ago.
Her best, and worst, rallying slogan will be Tous contre Sarkozy ("All against Sarkozy"). The best, because it will strike a chord in many quarters of French society, including among the record 3.3 million new voters (many from the banlieues) who mobilised against his raucous stand during the riots of October-November 2005. The worst, as it could lower the debate rather than enlightening it with a battle of ideas. Yet in throwing the old Mitterrand taboo against any alliance with the centre into the dustbin of history, she hopes to open new terrain for the left. The TV debate on 2 May between the two candidates will be a crucial moment.
This election is a watershed in French politics: gone is the generation of old-style politicians like Chirac, Mitterrand or Le Pen, born before the Second World War. Whoever wins will be in his/her early 50s, battle-tested maybe in a different sense but without the experience even of being prime minister. Sarkozy would be the first president of immigrant origin - not from North Africa, whose young immigrants he once called "scum", but from (white) Hungary and Greece - while Royal would be the first présidente. And, unfortunately, both of them are lightweights when it comes to foreign affairs. So, whoever wins, and even if the new president doesn't deliver on her or his many promises, France's face will look very different after 6 May 2007.