Election 2012: French Voters Face Stark Economic Choices in Presidential Poll
No candidate is likely to achieve an overall majority in the first round of the French presidential election, although it is probable that the two front-runners, incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and the Socialist Party's François Hollande, will go through to the second round.
IHS Global Insight Perspective
The first round of the French presidential election will demonstrate the strength of the front-runners and whether the growth of the far-left and far-right candidates has seriously damaged the mainstream parties.
It is likely that incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and the Socialist Party's François Hollande will go through to the next round, and that each will be backed by the defeated candidates further to the right and left, respectively.
Depending upon the closeness of the vote, there is a chance that centrist François Bayrou could become a "kingmaker", leaving him with a dilemma as he wrestles with problems of credibility.
French presidential contender François Hollande, 16 April 2012
Candidates in the French presidential election began their last full day of campaigning today (20 April) ahead of the first round of the contest due this Sunday (22 April). Campaigning is forbidden the day before the election. Ten candidates are standing in the polls—it might have been 11, but former prime minister Dominique de Villepin fell foul of the controversial requirement to obtain the endorsement of 500 elected officials across the country, a stipulation challenged unsuccessfully in court by several other candidates.
Nonetheless, the two front-runners are clear: incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), who was elected in 2007 with 53% of the vote; and François Hollande of the opposition Socialist Party (PS), who is currently leading in the polls. Sarkozy has been struggling with low ratings for some time now and has been damaged by the fallout from the global economic crisis, although his ratings showed a small upturn following his handling of the killing of three people by gunman Mohamed Merah in Toulouse last month. Should either candidate receive over 50% of the vote in the first round he would be automatically elected. However, with each hovering around the 28% mark in opinion polls over the course of the last month, this seems unlikely. Hollande retains a solid second-round lead in most polls, although one poll for the CSA on 17 April gave Hollande a five-point lead over Sarkozy in the first round and put him 16 points ahead in the second.
Behind these two come three others. On the far right is Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the erstwhile leader of the National Front (FN). Jean-Marie Le Pen gave mainstream French voters a fright in 2002 when he made it through to the second round of the presidential election, and Marine will be hoping to repeat the trick. With the economy and austerity a key issue in the campaign, Jean-Luc Mélenchon will be hoping to capitalise on latent anger with the system as a whole. He is backed by the Communist Party among others, although he is officially standing for the Left Front (FG). Centrist François Bayrou is unlikely to be able to repeat his surprise 18.5% of the vote in the 2007 presidential election, but he may be seen as a "kingmaker" in the second round.
Lastly there are the five outsiders. Eva Joly is a high-profile judge standing for the Green Party. However, economic concerns seem to be crowding out environmental issues, and polls show Joly on just 2–3%. Nathalie Arthaud and Philippe Poutou are each representing far-left parties, the Workers' Struggle (LO) and the New Anti-Capitalist Party, respectively. However, they appear to have failed to make much impact given the higher profiles of Mélenchon for the far left and Hollande for the centre left. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan has suffered similar difficulties on the right, with his "quiet patriotism" drowned out by the rather noisier versions of Le Pen and Sarkozy. Finally, Jacques Cheminade is the outsider's outsider, standing on a platform against the world of finance and removing heads of state who lead countries into "chaos and war".
Much of the election campaign has been dedicated—unsurprisingly, given the global context— to the economy. Sarkozy has pledged to balance the budget by 2016, raising value-added tax (VAT) from 19.6% to 21.2% in order to finance a reduction in the social cost of employing workers. Other policies from Sarkozy include ending tax exemptions for companies that relocate factories outside the EU; taxing French citizens abroad; ending "golden parachutes"; and continuing his current policy of replacing just one in two retiring public-sector workers (see France: 30 January 2012: French President Unveils Tax Plans amid Raft of Policy Proposals). He has also pledged a "golden rule" committing France to balanced budgets in the future, and reducing the number of MPs. Elsewhere, Sarkozy has once again moved to steal some of the clothes of the far right by making a series of promises on immigration. These include halving the number of legal immigrants and making it much tougher for family members to join immigrants already in France. However, Sarkozy has struggled to shake off the image established earlier in his term that he is a defender of the privileges of the well-off, and his more recent "man of the people" policies may not be sufficient to reverse this.
Hollande has also promised to balance the budget, although not until 2017. He has promised a new 75% tax rate for those with annual income of over EUR1 million (USD1.3 million), and a new wealth tax on the richest. He has also promised to go after tax exiles, and to end tax breaks worth around EUR29 billion. Hollande has also promised to renegotiate the EU's fiscal pact to include more measures for growth, although it is not entirely clear how much success he might have in this endeavour (see France: 27 January 2012: Election 2012: French Presidential Favourite Unveils Campaign Manifesto), and this may simply be a move to capture a thread of the nationalism that often underlines French politics. Hollande has also sought to change his image during the campaign from something of a joker to a more serious and weighty presidential candidate. He is solidly of the centre left, notwithstanding some of his more colourful rhetoric, and is keenly aware of the manner in which previous PS presidential campaigns have been undermined by internal arguments and divisions.
Mélenchon of the Left Front (formerly a PS member) has pledged much more radical measures, and it is striking that he has moved up in several recent polls to third place. Among his campaign pledges are the introduction of a minimum monthly wage of EUR1,700 and the confiscation of all income above EUR360,000. He has also promised a referendum on the EU fiscal pact and the withdrawal of France from NATO, as well as granting illegal immigrants jobs and work permits. Mélenchon's radical language has contributed to Hollande's shift to more leftist rhetoric. Despite their competition, however, it seems very likely that Mélenchon will be defeated in the first round and throw his weight behind Hollande in the second. There has been speculation that such a move could secure him a seat in a future Hollande government.
Le Pen, by contrast, has said that she would reduce the number of legal immigrants to 10,000 a year, end the right of any family members to join them, systematically expel illegal immigrants, and ban all "ostentatious" religious symbolism for users of public services such as hospitals and transport. She would go further than Mélenchon and withdraw France from the Eurozone and even the EU, reintroducing border controls and the French franc. Le Pen has a strong following in poorer urban areas. However, she has fallen well back in the opinion polls from the heights of earlier in the year, when it briefly appeared that she could knock out Sarkozy in the first round.
Finally, of the relatively mainstream candidates, Bayrou's platform would see him aim for a balanced budget by 2018, introduce higher taxes for higher earners, like many others aim to reduce tax breaks, and raise VAT. His most high-profile campaign pledge is perhaps the election of the EU president by universal suffrage, although like many of the candidates' promises, it is not clear how this might be arranged. Individually popular, his party machine is weaker than those of the other candidates, and it seems unlikely that he will get past the first round. Considerable speculation has been given to who he might back in the second round—in 2007, he refused to endorse either second-round candidate.
Outlook and Implications
Sarkozy's aides have been courting Bayrou for some time now, with recent speculation suggesting that the centrist politician could be offered the post of prime minister should he back Sarkozy's successful re-election. However, it is not at all clear that Bayrou could successfully bring all his own supporters on board, even if he were willing to back the incumbent. Part of the problem is Sarkozy's "triangulation" towards the right and away from the centre ground. By attempting to appeal to right-wing voters and stave off the risk of having his core vote eaten away, Sarkozy has risked alienating more moderate voters, and Bayrou could risk losing much of his own support if he were to back him. On the other hand, Bayrou has derided Hollande's economic policies, making it extremely difficult for him to throw his lot in with the centre left. Of course, should Hollande's lead be sufficiently large, Bayrou's choice may be irrelevant. However, at that stage he may wish to position himself as the voice of the centre right, meaning that backing Sarkozy could damage his credibility. Either way, Bayrou faces a gamble, and French voters could yet upset predictions, as they have done before.
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