Saturday, 21 April 2012

France 2012: The road to Élysée

Tomorrow, France will decide its representatives from a list of 10 candidates. The majority will receive a combined vote of less than 10%. Two weeks ago, Jean-Luc Mélenchon was part of that majority and yesterday night I went to Place de la Republique, the central area in Le Mans, to see a large screen displaying a live speech by the Left Front candidate. A few weeks ago, Mélenchon was barely mentioned; he wasn’t making enough noise to capture the attention of the French public. Yet, yesterday, there was a larger crowd than I have ever seen gathered in the little square.

Mélenchon has managed to garner support from around the country, while taking somewhat radical positions. One of his major arguments is that there needs to be greater wealth redistribution in France; as President, he would place a 100% tax on earnings over £300,000. He also speaks about the failure of neo-liberalism, and lambasts European leaders for their inability to deal with the economic downturn - a sentiment which Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has endorsed (though I'm not entirely sure he would agree with all that Mélenchon has to say!). This, coupled with claims that Sarkozy is a candidate of the rich, ensures that Mélenchon is providing a distinct voice; incidentally, Sarkozy did not help to refute this claim when he put away his €55,000 watch before shaking hands with supporters, inspiring rumours that he feared it might be stolen).

What’s more, although Mélenchon may appear to be a fringe candidate, with no real chance of victory, he has certainly caused a stir. While many citizens had previously planned to abstain, and submit blank votes, Mélenchon has given them an outlet for their anger. He may not become President in 2012 but he will have left his mark; in 2017 he will reappear with a stronger campaign and with a population that has had five more years to think about his ideas.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the far-right National Front (FN) candidate Marine Le Pen competes in her first presidential elections. Her father Jean-Marie, rather worryingly, found himself in the second round of the presidential elections in 2002 after a large number of the electorate voted for the FN as a protest vote. He fought his final elections in 2007, when he received under 11% in the first round.

Marine Le Pen brings a different approach from that of her father; an Economist blog refers to her as  “[embodying] a modern sort of French woman: Catholic, divorced, living with a new partner” without the “homophobic overtones of her father”. Indeed, a CSA poll said that she is the most popular candidate amongst 18 to 24 year old voters. But why has a far-right party, with proposals against immigration, with Islamophobic values, and with policies that Mélenchon has showed on a television debate to be regressive towards women, garnering this support?

According to the leader of the National Front youth group, Julien Rochedy, a vote for Le Pen is a "young and rebellious vote". In a blog post, he writes why he believes that young people are voting for Le Pen, pointing towards the unemployment rate for under 25s (a staggering 25%), the fact that young people apparently feel that there is an erosion of French culture and want a stronger national identity, and, finally, the notion that young people just don’t want to vote like their parents.

While Le Pen’s vote amongst youth appears high, polls currently put her in third place at around 16%. She should not be underestimated however and the events of 2002 remind us to be wary of the polls. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that she will cause too much disturbance on Sunday and President Sarkozy’s far-right policies will have done enough to appease her voters.

Certainly, current President and UMP candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has been reaching out to supporters of the National Front since the last elections and has continued this in office. In May 2010, the Green MP Nöel Mamère criticised the banning of the niqab (which Interior minister Claude Guéant called “a walking coffin”), declaring that the UMP were pushing the issue for the wrong reasons, and were instead making the “rallying of FN voters a priority”. When he pushed for the law, Sarkozy insisted that it was to protect women who were forced to wear it by husbands. One year later, of the 300 women fined, two-thirds have been single or divorced and they appear to have been wearing the garment by choice.

Mamère was definitely onto something; following the niqab ban, Sarkozy banned Muslims from praying on the streets, but not after Marine Le Pen had already brought up horrific memories of the Nazi occupation and referred to the Muslims in the streets as “an occupation”. Sarkozy’s latest move has been to provoke irritation amongst European leaders by announcing that France will suspend its participation in the Schengen Area if illegal immigration does not drop. Nicolas Le Pen indeed.

While it seems he has appeased many far-right voters, his record in power is still rather grim. Unemployment rose from 7.9% in December 2007 to 10% in February of this year and the Tepa law, which meant that France’s richest would never pay more than 50% in tax, has lead to a redistribution of €84bn in tax cuts since he was elected.

With François Hollande still above him in the polls, Sarkozy is now resorting to distressed tactics; on 12 April, journalists were invited to photograph and video the first few minutes of a meeting with the US President Barack Obama. During these two minutes, Sarkozy could be heard telling Obama: “We will win”. Hollande’s camp responded quickly, proclaiming it a “desperate move”. 

So what of Hollande? The somewhat witty leader of the Socialist Party has been leading the polls for months, still claims a few percentage points over Sarkozy in the first round and is leading at about 55% in the second round. But why are people voting for him? Hollande blames the incumbent Sarkozy for the large public deficit and high unemployment and, unlike Sarkozy, he wants the government to work more closely with trade unions.

Yet, truthfully, these are side issues. Unfortunately, a large amount of Hollande’s support has not been due to his policies but rather the failure of Sarkozy. I have had similar conversations with a number of teaching colleagues and they always say the same thing: “I’ll probably vote for Hollande. Not because I like him, God no! He’s just the best of the candidates.” A retired statistician speaking to the Economist puts it more succinctly: a vote for Hollande is “more a rejection of Sarkozy”.

Come Sunday, it is almost certain that Hollande will be among the two frontrunners heading to the second round. Can Hollande really win an election based on the “rejection” of his opponent? Hollande is fully aware of this and has already started his preparations. While barely heard at the beginning of his campaign, he now talks about the I-word; Hollande has promised an annual parliamentary debate on how many immigrants are needed for each industry and has assured the electorate that there will be an “unrelenting fight” against illegal immigration. With public finances a major issue among voters, he will most certainly push his manifesto promise to reduce the deficit to 0% of the GDP by 2017.

If Sarkozy is his opponent, the battle will be fierce. Sarkozy came out very strongly after the attacks in Toulouse, demonstrating a tough stance on law-and-order and displaying admirable statesmanship, unifying the country in a difficult time. He is also adamant that Hollande’s lack of government experience (a fear expressed by many) will be telling in the live national television debate. Meanwhile, Hollande, the affable nice-guy, will continue to play the role of the ordinary Frenchman, a position Sarkozy has tried, unsuccessfully, to fill.

It’s worth noting that the last time Hollande debated against a French President, even if Chirac hadn’t yet become President, Hollande’s humour lead to him being sprawled across the front pages of newspapers. He also had time to learn under the wing of former President Francois Mitterrand, himself described as a politicial genius. Perhaps the tipping point will be that Jacques Chirac has not said he will support his protégé, Nicolas Sarkozy, but instead that he strongly supports François Hollande and will be voting for him.

These elections have provoked much discussion and debate; France has not seen a left-wing President in nearly two decades and Hollande is in prime position to be that man. Mélenchon has also brought more radical ideas into the fray, and while he may not make it to the second round, his supporters – the supporters Hollande wants to attract – will demand that Hollande listen to them.

Originally written for The Student Journals.


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