Less than a year to go and the French elections have never seemed so undecided

Sarkozy’s presidential term has made the front page more often for his private life than for his policies; this has undermined his possibilities for a re-election and increased the chances for opposition candidates.
Aurelien Mondon
13 September 2011

Four years ago, in the aftermath of his landslide victory against Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal, it was widely expected that Nicolas Sarkozy would easily claim a second term in 2012. The extreme right was in shambles with Jean-Marie Le Pen receding to just above 10%, far from the 15% he had gathered in 2002. The moderate left had failed in its bid to outflank Sarkozy’s populism and had lost touch with its traditional base. Minor parties had also suffered a terrible blow as many French voters decided to cast what became famously known as a ‘vote utile’ (‘useful vote’) for the main candidates to avoid another ‘21 April’. The future was bright for Sarkozy and those who had not voted for him braced themselves for at least ten years of ‘unabashed’ rule.

Yet as they had gained almost unchallenged hegemony, Sarkozy and his acolytes became their own worst enemies. After his election, he spent the night at one of the most exclusive nightclubs on the Champs Elysées, before escaping on a yacht lent by a billionaire friend. From then on, Sarkozy was internationally and irremediably known as ‘president Bling-Bling’, a clear dint in his populist strategy. The next four years witnessed a succession of blunders and miscalculations. Sarkozy made the front page more often for his private life and for the corruption scandals his party found itself embroiled in than for his policies. His attempts to appeal to the basest instincts of the French population, and particularly to the Front National voters, backfired. He soon proved unable to keep his promises, embittering further those he had seduced and alienating the vast majority who did not recognise themselves in ethno-exclusivist politics. It seems unlikely that his praised handling of the recent Lybian events will be enough to restore his credentials.

As a result, less than a year before the next presidential election, the situation hardly be more confused. And while Sarkozy revived hope in his opponents, their divisions seem to have so far prevented any plausible alternative to arise.

The Parti Socialiste (PS) appears still incapable of offering a new vision and unable to shake the demons of its past. Since Lionel Jospin was defeated in the first round of the 2002 election by Le Pen, the Socialists have remained dumbfounded and failed to counter the populist tide surfed by the right. Like most moderate left-wing parties in the West, the Socialists have increasingly alienated their historical electorate in favour of middle-class voters. Since Mitterrand’s 1981 election, the Socialist failure to retain the interest of the socio-economically disadvantaged resulted in a dramatic rise in voting abstention. Yet until recently there was hope for the PS, as Sarkozy himself allowed Dominique Strauss-Kahn to gain international prominence by supporting his appointment as head of the IMF. In the past year, many became confident in DSK’s ability to beat Sarkozy and become the next French president. Needless to say, Strauss-Kahn’s American scandals were a disaster for the Socialists and the former IMF’s boss reputation appears to have been irremediably tarnished (despite the hopes of his most fervent supporters). The primaries which should take place next month, unless a delay is granted for Strauss-Kahn to stage his comeback, will decide between three main rather uncharismatic candidates (former PS secretary François Hollande, current secretary Martine Aubry and former candidate Ségolène Royal) who will bear the mostly shattered hopes of the moderate left in the presidential bid.

To the left of the PS, many parties will fight to gather the vote of the growing discontented. While the current social turmoil in Europe could bode a promising result for the extreme left, parties on that side of the political spectrum appear currently unable to capitalise on the new form of politics taking place in the streets. The Front de Gauche (Left Front), a collection of parties including the formerly powerful Communist Party, appears the most likely to play an important part in the election. Its leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former socialist, remains a divisive figure, but could benefit from Socialist voters deserting their former party for a more radical alternative. In any case, it is unlikely they will do as well as Die Linke in Germany, which has recently posed itself as a credible and electorally appealing alternative. The Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (New Anti-Capitalist Party former Revolutionary Communist League) which proved a force to contend with in the past should not fare any better and could even recede as popular candidate Olivier Besancenot decided not to run for his third presidential bid. While his decision is in line with the politics of his party, it will most likely have a negative impact as Besancenot benefitted from a positive public image and sympathetic media coverage. A resurgence of other parties on the extreme left such as once popular Lutte Ouvrière (Worker’s Struggle) is unlikely so close to the election.

As in many western democracies, environmentalists are on the rise in France and could play a major part in the crowning of the next president. However, in the present state, they appear deeply divided and, despite Eva Joly’s clear success in the primaries, it is hard to see an uncontested candidature emerging. Joly has received very little media attention apart from the attacks she was the victim of for being born in Norway. In fact, Joly’s consecration over former TV presenter Nicolas Hulot’s highly publicised candidature could eventually lessen the electoral appeal of the greens in general. With his high media profile, it remains a possibility for Hulot to decide to run on his own or more likely to support another candidate (rumours mentioned Sarkozy might have approached him already). The Green electorate could therefore be split between a moderate and more radical alternative. This could also lead to the surprise candidature of famous altermondialiste farmer José Bové, who has so far vowed to remain within the ranks of the party. Finally, smaller green parties, including a right-wing one, could have a certain impact on the overall result.  While the green ticket could be one of the possible winners in the power vacuum within French politics, many questions remain to be answered before the Greens can be thought of as a real contender

In fact, as it stands, the biggest threat to Sarkozy’s re-election seems to be on his own side of politics. His flirt with the extreme right, notably in his creation of a Ministry for Immigration and National Identity and his dealing with the Muslim community in general, has created a rift in the moderate right. So far, three credible contestants have voiced their intent to fill this gap. François Bayrou, who gathered almost 19% of the vote in 2007 and refused to give preferences for the second round, is unlikely to do as well this time around. He should nonetheless collect a non-negligible share of the votes, mostly from the disappointed moderate electorate, making Sarkozy and the Socialist candidate within reach of other contestants. Former prime minister and staunch anti-Sarkozist Dominique de Villepin could also run, although opinion polls suggest he is unlikely to gather momentum. Most threatening to Sarkozy is Jean-Louis Borloo, the ‘social face’ of the early Sarkozy government. While he is still to confirm his candidature, he appears best suited to embody a more ethical, social right: an appealing alternative to Sarkozy’s messy populism.

As it has increasingly in the past three decades, the extreme right appears to hold the key to the election. Recent polls sent a shockwave across French politics when they showed Marine Le Pen could lead the first round of the election. However, the apparent resurgence of the Front National must be taken with caution for it could lead to a state of paranoia akin to that which took hold of France between 2002 and 2007 and prevented any cold-headed political discussion to take place. Clearly, opinion polls do not always reflect the ballot truth. Many people refuse to answer polls and many others, knowing their say will have no consequence, give voice to their discontent more freely than they would in the ballot box. Yet despite their known inaccuracy such polls have proven to have a huge impact on first round results. In 2007, the failure of smaller parties to confirm the results obtained five years prior was directly related to the ‘useful vote’ campaign ran by the Socialist party and the UMP. The two main parties ran a campaign on the fear of another 21 April which led to an unexpected boost in their primary vote, leaving smaller protest and radical parties stranded. Simultaneously, the fear of another Front National ‘victory’ led to a rightward shift in both the discourse of the moderate left and right in an attempt to stem the flow of voters deserting their ranks to join Le Pen’s or abstention.

While Marine Le Pen’s attempt to transform her father’s party in a more moderate formation might be a success in the lead up to the election, this early rise might prove extremely harmful to both the Front National and other minor parties, and a blessing for the ‘establishment’. If the trend does not change dramatically in the next few months, it is to be expected that the moderate right and left will run a scare campaign on the fear of a repetition of 21 April 2002. Only such a configuration could help Sarkozy claim a re-election as it would place him in a similar situation to that of 2007. A second round against a weak Socialist party, with the spectre of the extreme right in the background forcing populist issues to the foreground, would very likely grant a second mandate to a president with extremely low approval ratings. 

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