international analysis and commentary

What’s at stake in the French presidential race

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For months, statistical surveys and media have pictured François Hollande as the favorite in the French presidential race, but as the representative of the Socialist Party likes to say “I haven’t won yet!” and as his counterpart, the current President Nicolas Sarkozy, enjoys replying “I haven’t lost yet!”.

Both men seem to agree on this important point: everything is still possible. Hence, it was with a certain level of hope that all ten candidates started the official campaign for the presidency.

For his part, François Hollande prefers to be cautious, as his biggest adversary Nicolas Sarkozy has a reputation to be feared in election times. His last presidential campaign was a formidable demonstration of his energy, focusing on a well-structured and focused rhetoric. Today, his techniques remain nearly the same. Mr. Sarkozy’s slogan is “La France forte” (“The strong France”) emphasized in his speeches with constant repetitions of the term “strong”. This is a way for the French President to position himself in opposition to the image of the socialist candidate, shown in media and cartoon caricatures as a “weak” figure.

The two men have begun their campaign by concentrating on regularly attacking one another. This sparring has started to annoy French citizens and proved beneficial for the other candidates, who have recently enjoyed a rise in popularity.

The small parties, as they are called in France, stand in opposition to the two big parties (the PS on the left and the UMP on the right), refusing to take a position for Mr. Hollande or Mr. Sarkozy after the second round. They all insist on the importance of rethinking the PS/UMP balance and criticize the existing political situation. Fortunately for them, after the start of the official campaign French law obliges national media to divide air time equally between candidates. However, many of them did not wait for the official start to express their ideas and to be heard by the population.

Today French politics is facing an unexpected situation where three candidates beside Mr. Hollande and Mr. Sarkozy have earned so much popularity that the battle has become more complicated for everybody.

Marine Le Pen, the National Front candidate (far right), who has taken over as head of her father’s party (which is used to getting a guaranteed third or fourth place in elections), still has to prove herself as a candidate. She won’t be the only one to unbalance the result of the first round, as the centrist candidate François Bayrou could also be a factor: in 2007, he conducted a strong campaign that made him third on the podium.

However, one of the big surprises of this year’s election is the popularity of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Left Front Party candidate, who is seducing a significant portion of the French population. The latest polls give him a 14.5% share of the vote. Although he is ideologically on the complete opposite side of Ms. Le Pen, he seems to attract a section of electors who traditionally might be tempted by the Nationalist Front. Working class voters are listening attentively to his proposals and are ready to re-affiliate with the left of the political spectrum that they had abandoned after feeling neglected by the Socialist Party. After the closing of several factories this year, they are finally hearing a candidate who speaks directly to them and proposes a complete restructuring of French politics. The Fifth French Republic has seen socialists and republicans leading the political scene, today the popularity of Mélenchon, Bayrou and Le Pen may be a sign that French citizens are asking the traditional parties for more and for a change.

Although the Greens choose “change” as their motto, it seems that they are already fighting a losing campaign. The Green candidate, Eva Joly, wavers in the polls with between 2 and 2.5% of the vote. This low score reflects the general lack of interest in environmental issues and ecological preoccupations: other candidates stay very quiet on the particular issues, preferring to discuss and reevaluate the financial crisis from a consumer purchasing power point of view rather than from an environmental perspective.

Clearly, the economic crisis is at the heart of the campaign, followed closely by national safety – which has come even closer to the forefront after the Toulouse terror attacks. Despite Sarkozy’s promises in 2007, economics and security mark the two domains in which he has failed during his first term as president.

With France losing its triple-A credit rating at the beginning of the year, Mr. Sarkozy’s credibility has also suffered. However, Sarkozy protests that the crisis was an issue beyond his term and prefers to remind us of the role that France and Germany had in trying to reduce the repercussions of Greece’s debt for other European countries. He also warns the electorate that if Mr. Hollande takes power, the country risks a financial debt crisis similar to the one in Greece. He also points out that France is losing its leadership position inside the European Union.

According to Mr. Hollande, Sarkozy’s warnings are nonsense. He recognizes that his vision for the European Union is far different from his opponent’s, but emphasizes that his point of view is clear and intensively pro-European. If he comes into power, he says that he will renegotiate the current financial deal with the banks and European leaders.

The socialist candidate prefers to reassure French citizens and ask them to trust his sincerity, saying that as president he will not change one line of his program. Demonstrating that he is already showing consistency, he likes repeating that this is not the case with every candidate, many of whom have, in the past, compromised their programs several times. He says, “I made my program public several months ago and nothing has changed since, this is the opposite of Mr. Sarkozy who seems to regularly add new points to seduce the crowd.”

Over the last two weeks, the campaign has been focused more on political ideas than personal attacks. And the two favorites each managed to arrange massive gatherings of supporters in Paris. During week one of the first round, on April 15th, all candidates organized huge meetings in the capital. Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande, at Concorde Place and Vincennes respectively, managed to gather more than 100,000 citizens each.

Unfortunately, the media did not manage to count who gathered the most. French citizens will have to wait to have this answer as the results will have to be kept secret until the first round vote. Twitter and Facebook users have already been warned that those who communicate any result before it has been officially announced will be fined. Whatever the results of the first round, uncertainty will be a key factor in this election.