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France: A 2002 Election, Only in Reverse?

 

The Ray Bans, the high profile divorce, the new supermodel wife, and the sharp rhetoric does not appear to fit the mold of a traditional French President. After all, the French do not call him the “bling bling” president for nothing. Looking back to the 2007 Presidential election, a new era in French politics emerged; a woman, Ségolène Royale, ascended to the top of the Socialist ranks to represent the large left wing base of the electorate. She was young, attractive, had a new family and seemed able to unite the Socialist base into a strong contender for the second round. Sarkozy also brought a radical breath of fresh air onto the political scene. When compared to the dull and oratorical Gaullist incumbent Chirac, Sarkozy definitely introduced more panache to the office of the President.

However, with the election less than four months away, Mr. Sarkozy’s popular support has waned significantly. It is no longer uncommon to meet once ardent supporters of Mr. Sarkozy and his political agenda who now feel betrayed by his actions during his presidency. It seems that voters of the right, while they agree with his political ideals, simply cannot stand his personality, which so starkly differs from tradition. Representatives of his UMP party can show, or at least suggest to, traditional voters of the right that he has not strayed ideologically. Under his leadership, Sarkozy has tried to make France a greater player not just in Europe but on the world stage as well. He handled the financial crisis with flair and tenacity; matching his “hyper personality” while France held the rotating seat of the European Presidency. He aggressively pushed through long-awaited pension reforms as well as university reforms shaking up higher education to create “Ivy League” institutions. Most recently he led France in taking a strong leadership role in the NATO campaign of Libya. The main point is that the majority of people cannot deny he has been very active politically when compared to his predecessors. Whether the French agree or disagree with his reforms and policies is not at issue in this article. Rather, it is because four years of hyperactivity in the Presidency has simply worn out the general population, including a sizable portion of the right-wing electorate.

The economic downturn has not helped Sarkozy, especially with his flamboyant personality. Like most developed nations, in the end it is the state of the economy that determines an incumbent’s re-election chances. For example, in the United States, no American president since WWII has ever been re-elected when unemployment was over 7.5%, which puts President Obama in a similar situation as Sarkozy as unemployment stands at 8.5%. Sarkozy thus faces a difficult situation going into the campaign season as the Parti Socialiste has already chosen its leader, Francois Hollande (Ségolène Royal’s ex-partner) as the “anti-Sarkozy” where his mild-mannered personality has given him the reputation as “Mr. Normal”. So in a broad perspective it looks as if the independent voters will decide whether they want France to continue another five years of a hyperactive presidency, or return to a more traditional political scene.

Yet, there is also a remote possibility that Sarkozy may not even pass the first round. The extreme right National Front leader Marine Le Pen has consistently held very high poll numbers with a most recent poll giving her 21.5% favourability from the French population. Le Pen’s purely populist policies such as somehow reducing immigration “by 95%” and getting out of the Euro given the tough economic situation, resonates with a lot of French voters. It could be a similar situation to the 2002 election where her father, Jean Marie Le Pen stunned the political world by beating Socialist leader Lionel Jospin in the first round, which consequentially set off a panic on the left wing as the second round ticket had Jacques Chirac as the “best option”. Fearing Le Pen’s extreme right positions, Chirac won with 80% of the vote, as moderate left wing voters had no choice but to choose Chirac. This year, the same situation could present itself, only in reverse. If Sarkozy who is currently standing at a 23.5% (Ifop poll) approval rating, is beaten by Le Pen in the first round, the moderate right wing will be forced to choose Socialist leader Hollande. While the Sarkozy and Le Pen camp are feverishly ramping up their respective campaigns, the Parti Socialiste (for once) is unified and in a comfortable position to wait its true opponent not in the first round, but the final one.

 

Alexander Gardinier

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