With one of The Current Moment editors based in Paris, it is difficult not to post on last night’s first round of the French presidential elections. And after the unedifying spectacle of different politicians talking over each other for hours on end on French TV, a few ordered thoughts will not go amiss.
François Hollande, the Socialist Party candidate, has come out on top, as most people expected. With 28.63% of the vote, he was a little ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy, the outgoing president, who secured 27.08% of the vote. What is surprising is how close these two scores were. There is some variation in the scores, depending on how you round them off, but there is little evidence of Hollande having pulled away dramatically from Sarkozy. Hollande’s victory in this round is far less decisive than Sarkozy’s was in 2007. Back then, Sarkozy won the first round with more than 31% of the vote, the socialist Ségolène Royal winning just under 26%. Watching the speeches each candidate gave after the announcement of the results, there was no obvious sense of victory either way. Sarkozy even appeared to upstage Hollande by challenging the socialist to three presidential debates over the next two weeks. A typically pugnacious gesture on Sarkozy’s part, Hollande seems to have refused which puts him in a defensive position vis-à-vis the ever combative Sarkozy.
At this stage, it is difficult to tell whether the anti-Sarkozy sentiment in France will be strong enough to sweep him out of power. The results suggest that contrary to many other elections that have taken place in Europe in the course of the crisis (e.g. here on the Spanish elections), the incumbent has managed to hold on to a good deal of support. Given the apparently ubiquitous dislike of Sarkozy, his score appears rather high. We are also seeing at this stage the limits of the Socialist strategy. Their slogan – Le Changement, C’est Maintenant (Change is Now) – highlights how much they have relied upon anti-Sarkozy feeling. Their claim to incarnate change is a weak one. Figures such as Laurent Fabius – a young prime minister under François Mitterand in the 1980s – hardly incarnate change. Rather, there is in the Socialist Party a sense that it is their turn to rule: out of power since the mid-1990s, their rightful place was usurped by a victorious Sarkozy in 2007. Now, their turn – long overdue – has come. It is this kind of sentiment – less evident in Hollande than it is in his entourage – that helps fuel support for the more marginal parties.
The first round result was noteworthy perhaps above all for the high scores of the far-right Front National and the left-of-the-left party, the Front de Gauche. Much of the campaign had been taken up by this struggle between Marine le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the populists of the right and of the left. Polls had credited the Front de Gauche with up to 15% of the vote but Mélenchon obtained on the night 11.13%. Marine le Pen, who had often been pushed back to fourth place in the polls, came a powerful third with 18.01%. It is difficult to assess what this means for the next round. Le Pen is expected not to give any clear sign that her supporters should vote for Sarkozy and many may not vote in the second round. Mélenchon called on his supporters to vote against Sarkozy, but held back on the night from openly calling on them to support Hollande – a tortuous position to hold if ever there was one. If we judge from the feeling that prevailed on the Sarkozyste right that “all is to play for”, there is no doubt some of that bullish sentiment comes from the hope that they can win over most of Le Pen’s supporters in the second round. Sarkozy’s speech last night – making much of patriotism, strong borders and economic protectionism – was an obvious pitch to Front National supporters. And the Socialists may find themselves in an uncomfortable position of trying to secure the votes of the virulently anti-FN Mélenchon supporters whilst at the same time sending conciliatory messages to the FN vote about understanding those who are suffering in the economic downturn. Here we see the problems of the Socialist Party: both a centrist and pragmatic (and largely middle class) electoral machine, and a party with a few remaining roots in the French working class.
It is unlikely that either Hollande or Sarkozy will upset the European crisis boat after one of them has been elected on May 6th. Hollande’s main policy on the Eurozone crisis is to reorient macro-economic governance in a pro-growth direction. This is a very general claim, easily satisfied by cosmetic measures such as affixing the term growth to new European agreements much as was done with the Stability and Growth Pact. It is unlikely that the Socialists would rock the Eurogroup boat by denouncing all existing measures and demanding a return to the drawing board. It is likely that the curious way in which Brussels-based policymaking is able to insulate itself from domestic political currents will continue. What will happen within France, however, is far from clear. The success of the FN might also spell the end of its marginal existence and its transformation into a more mainstream party. There is talk of changing the party’s name, for instance, part of a wider and longer-term exercise in rebranding. But for the moment, the focus will be on what will happen on May 6th.