Expert Comment: French Presidential Election, First RoundMonday 30 April 2012
Professor Bill Jones, Department of Politics, History, Media and Communications
So the polls were not so far wrong. Francois Hollande led by four points in the late polls and managed to defeat Nicholas Sarkozy by a narrow two points (28.5% to 27.1%). Marine Le Pen managed a kind of triumph by achieving the highest ever first round vote for her far right Front National (higher than her father in 2002 at 18.1%).
Left wing firebrand Jean-Luc Melanchon (left), who proposed a 100% tax on the earnings of the very rich, ran a terrific campaign but somewhat underperformed his earlier poll showings with 11.1% of the vote. Meanwhile, the regular centrist presidential candidate, Francois Bayrou managed a respectable 8.1%. Certainly, these results indicated a strong rebuff for the incumbent whose loud, hyperactive, populist style had alienated a large tranche of French voters.
I’m struck by two features of this first stage of the election:
Firstly, the French political spectrum is so much wider than the British. Ever since the revolution we have known French political culture is different to ours, with a polarised left and right and weak centre. Excluding the fringe, consider the relatively slight differences between our ‘extremes’ in the form of, say, John Cruddas and John Redwood; then look at the considerable distance between Le Pen and Melanchon.
Secondly, as The Economist noted (20/1/12), ‘how little anybody is saying about the dire economic straits’ in which the country finds itself. The same journal had noted (31/3/12):
“France has not balanced its books since 1974. Public debt stands at 90% of GDP and rising. Public spending, at 56% of GDP, gobbles up a bigger chunk of output than in any other euro-zone country—more even than in Sweden. The banks are undercapitalised. Unemployment is higher than at any time since the late 1990s and has not fallen below 7% in nearly 30 years, creating chronic joblessness in the crime-ridden banlieues that ring France’s big cities. Exports are stagnating while they roar ahead in Germany. France now has the euro zone’s largest current-account deficit in nominal terms. Perhaps France could live on credit before the financial crisis, when borrowing was easy. Not any more.”
The election's second round takes place on May 6th: Is it ‘game over’ for Sarko? It certainly looks like it but the eventual outcome revolves around two key imponderables: Firstly, how will supporters of the far left and far right decide to distribute their votes? Polls suggest far right voters will not vote en bloc for the centre right. Le Pen’s supporters, suggest the polls, will split 48 for Sarkozy and 24 for Hollande. Eighty per cent of Melanchon’s support, however, will vote for Hollande and it is likely he will also pick up a fair number of Francois Bayrou’s votes in the second round.
Secondly, how will this reverse affect the volatile but resourceful Sarko? He is famed for his bold electioneering. Will he destroy Hollande in his TV debate as he did Segolene Royale in 2007? Hollande is famous for being unflappable and such an outcome is less likely this time around. But the French president is desperate to hang on to his job in the Elysee Palace and the destination of runners up votes in the first round are by no means assured for the Socialist leader.
If he does win he will be the first left wing president since Mitterand and the prospect of an ally with such totally different ideas on how to run a major European economy will worry the likes of Angela Merkel and David Cameron, not to mention the international bond markets.