Nicolas Sarkozy made French history on Sunday – he became the first incumbent president to fail to win the first round in the Fifth Republic. Francois Hollande topped the poll and gave great hope to the French socialists who haven’t won a presidential election for 24 years. It looks likely that Hollande will go on to beat the sitting president in the second round on May 6. All but one of the postwar presidents have secured a second term.
The French system clearly favours incumbency. The Fifth Republic aimed to create a close relationship between the French people and their president. But this relationship is severely under strain. Nicolas Sarkozy is a divisive politician who is widely unpopular. His recent approval rating stood at just 36 per cent and recent polling by Ipsos MORI shows that many French voters regard him as dishonest and disagreeable. He does, however, score highly in polls on ‘being capable of taking difficult decisions’ and having ‘the authority of a head of state.’
It is evident that the president and his campaign team are acutely aware of his weaknesses. He has shown uncharacteristic remorse in recent weeks for the way in which he celebrated his victory in 2007. Many still remember that he dined at exclusive Champs-Elysées restaurant La Fouquette, holidayed on a yacht and gave himself an eye watering 150 per cent pay rise. He is seen as needlessly hyperactive and self-absorbed.
One of Hollande’s key messages is to play on the negative character traits of the incumbent president. In turn, Sarkozy has attacked Hollande’s lack of ministerial experience. However, the president’s claims of relative economic competence ring hollow against a background of 12 per cent unemployment and high levels of public debt and deficit. Hollande has promised extra government spending, notably on teachers and a three per cent increase for healthcare, but has also pledged tax rises to pay for these increases. He has also emphasised the need to balance the budget.
Marine Le Pen also made history last night. The National Front secured its best share of the vote ever with just over 18 per cent. Many questions will now be asked of the French political elite: why are so many voters disaffected and attracted to the far-right party? Why did the pollsters underestimate Marine Le Pen’s support and overestimate that of the media-friendly, hard left candidate, Jean Luc Melenchon?
Crucially, the big question which will dominate the next two weeks is where Le Pen’s votes will go in the second round, if anywhere. One pollster predicts that a third will stay at home. Another pollster estimates that 48 per cent will go to Sarkozy and 24 per cent to Hollande. The significance of the national assembly elections a month after the final presidential vote now comes sharply into view. Le Pen will focus all her efforts on maximising her party’s victories on elections in those regions such as the north east and south where the National Front is particularly strong.
Sarkozy has demonstrated the dangers of using populist rhetoric in his election campaigns, while governing largely as a mainstream centre-right politician. His recent threats to pull France out of Schengen were not credible. His focus on immigration is consistent but Le Pen has portayed him as not living up to his rhetoric. Perilously, he has legitimised a far-right narrative tinged with racism and must take some of the blame for Le Pen’s success.
Apart from stumbling off-stage on Sunday night, Sarkozy also challenged Hollande to three televised debate in the next two weeks (there is only one currently scheduled). The outgoing president will attempt to play to his strengths – his incumbency and debating skills. But it is foolish to underestimate Hollande who is intellectually agile, has a sharp wit and great sense of humour.
A socialist victory in France would fundamentally change the terms of the debate in the European Union – up until now dominated by centre-right governments’ focus on austerity. Hollande’s presence at the European Council negotiating table is sorely needed. He doesn’t want to scrap the fiscal compact treaty but wants to rebalance it with a commitment to growth.
The centre-left in Europe needs resuscitating. In 2000, we were in power in 11 out of 15 member states. Now we lead government in only four out of 27. I am hopeful that a victory for Hollande in two weeks’ time will spark that revival.
Emma Reynolds is shadow minister for Europe and MP for Wolverhampton North-East
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