The First Round: The Ten Candidates

The first round of the 2012 French presidential election takes place on April 22. The following is Sister Republic’s run-down of the ten candidates on the ballot:

Nicolas Sarkozy

Union for a Popular Movement (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, UMP)

It has been a strange five years: the man regarded as unquestionably the most talented French politician of his generation has become one of the least popular and, perhaps, worst presidents of the Fifth Republic. Nicolas Sarkozy, who used to say that he dreamed of being president while shaving in the morning, is struggling for his political survival. He risks becoming the first incumbent since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1981 to be denied a second term (a point that Giscard famously rubbed in, with wonderful passive aggressiveness, by letting the camera dwell on his empty chair for the entire duration of the Marseillaise at the end of his farewell speech).

Sarkozy, renowned for the nervous energy he brings to every endeavor, does have a record to run on (thanks in no small part to his competent and self-effacing prime minister, François Fillon). In 2007, he introduced measures to minimize the impact of public sector strikes on the French population. He implemented a controversial pension reform, which meant that most French people not facing immanent retirement will have to work longer. He has, like all Fifth Republic presidents, made foreign policy a priority. He was critical in securing Western military intervention on behalf of the Libyan rebellion; he has taken a hawkish stance on Iran; and he reintegrated France into NATO’s integrated command. Most importantly, he has played a critical role in the euro crisis, negotiating the Greek bailout and crafting policies to staunch the risk of future defaults. In this context, he found a crucial ally in German chancellor Angela Merkel, though he has often placed himself to the left of her draconian fiscal conservatism.

So why is it that even French conservatives can’t stand him? The reason lies in the toxic mixture of Sarkozy’s personality, policies, and style of government, which are now referred to—and decried—as “Sarkozysme.” Ever since his election night party at the ritzy Fouquet’s hotel, Sarkozy has left little doubt that he finds money and ostentatious displays of wealth very pleasant indeed. At the same time, he has frequently displayed a childish impetuosity and defensiveness about his political prerogatives. The most celebrated instance was when, early in his presidency, he was caught on camera responding to a heckler in the idiom of a street punk: “Casse-toi, pauvre con” (which roughly translates as “Get lost, you sorry asshole”). These personality traits matter because they seem representative of Sarkozy’s reign and even, perhaps, of the broader zeitgeist. He has bullied French journalists and television stations that stand in his way. He has adopted policies—notably the “bouclier fiscal” or “tax shield”—that some see as the French answer to the Bush tax cuts, in the way they favor the wealthy—at a time when many are worried about rising income inequality. He has sought to scale back the number of teachers in French schools, while encouraging greater competition between France’s public universities and challenging the status of scholarly research—even as he publicly ridiculed a cherished work of seventeenth-century literature (Madame de Lafayette’s Princesse de Clèves). In sum, Sarkozy is seen by many as a crassly materialistic authoritarian, beholden to the financial powers-that-be, in an age when France seems spiritually adrift, relinquishing its democratic and egalitarian traditions to the idols of the market. Part of Sarkozy’s problem is, of course, the global economic crisis. Yet at a deeper level, it’s the image of France he has projected. To many, Sarkozy is Berlusconi without the bunga bunga. In this context, the colorless and instinctively moderate Hollande—who makes it a point of honor that he will be a “normal” president—has some appeal. The one thing that could save Sarkozy is the simple fact that (contrary to what you hear in the United States), the French don’t usually like socialists: in the past nine presidential election, a socialist won only twice (and that socialist, arguably, wasn’t one). One of Sarkozy’s greatest feats might be to break this trend.

François Hollande

Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste, or PS)

(The following is from a portrait I wrote of Hollande last October): For a man who could become the next president of France—recent polls have him beating Nicolas Sarkozy 57%-43% in a run-off—François Hollande is difficult to pin down. He led the Socialist Party (Parti socialiste, or PS) for a decade, but has never held a cabinet position. He made a career-defining choice of shirking the party’s internal caucuses. Consequently, he is not identified with any particular “flavor” of socialist politics. He is perhaps best known for his bonhomie and mischievous sense of humor. Back in 2002, I heard him speak at a municipal gymnasium somewhere in the Ménilmontant neighborhood of Paris. He works an audience well, using a familiar, conversational style reminiscent of a stand-up comedian. He is said to be popular with journalists. Yet in the past year, as he has prepared to compete in the socialist primary, he has made a conscious effort to appear more serious: he’s lost his roly-poly figure, donned trendy glasses, and become sparing in his bons mots and petites phrases. (For the rest of the article, click here).

François Bayrou 

Bayrou’s “Slap”

Democratic Movement (Mouvement démocrate, MoDem)

If France, like Germany and the Netherlands, had a Christian Democratic Party, Bayrou would be its candidate. Instead, he is running on behalf of the Democratic Movement (Mouvement Démocrate, or MoDem), which he founded in 2007 after an impressive third place finish in the presidential election. The MoDem is a centrist party and the current incarnation of France’s “non-Gaullist right,” which combines liberal and Christian democratic strands. Bayrou is a practicing Catholic with six kids. He is also a staunch secularist: secularism is good for the state, he says, but equally good for the believer. He wrote a popular biography of Henri IV, the French king who ended the wars of religion by converting from Protestantism to Catholicism, declaring “Paris is worth a mass.”

Though his instincts and positions place him more on the center-right than on the center per se, Bayrou, who is 60, has cast himself as an opponent to President Sarkozy. Ideologically, Bayrou is a Christian humanist. Politically, he’s strongly pro-European. He’s a proponent of regional identity who speaks Béarnais, the dialect of the southwestern region he represents. He wants to reinvigorate French democracy by fighting corruption, giving parliament and the judicial system greater leeway to check executive power, and strengthening civil society. Economically, he has emphasized the importance of cutting France’s debt. Personally, Bayrou is among the more popular of French politicians, but he can be sanctimonious: he once publicly slapped a young boy in the face who was trying to pick his pocket during a campaign stop. Yet while in 2007 Bayrou may have tempted a few leftists who found the socialists stodgy and unoriginal, his pro-European and economically conservative platform may, in light of the Greek crisis and the global economic downturn, have limited appeal. He’s polling around 10-12%. This probably is not his year.

Like Father, Like Daughter

Marine Le Pen

National Front (Front National, FN)

In 2006, Marine Le Pen, the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the far-right National Front’s historic leader and five-time presidential candidate, was under attack from members of her own party. She had approved a poster for her father’s campaign that featured a North African woman to promote France’s most famous anti-immigrant and racist politician. Defending her decision, Marine explained: “This poster mentions nationality, assimilation, social mobility, and secularism, which are domains in which both the left and right have absolutely failed. A number of French people of immigrant origin are conscious of this failure and intend to get answers.”

This year, Marine, who took over her father’s party in 2011, is the candidate. Her 2006 remark is a succinct description of her current strategy. Though it seems highly unlikely that many French people of immigrant origin will cast a ballot for a party dedicated to stripping them of their rights, Marine’s ambition is to clean up the party’s image by washing out the stain of illegitimacy (fascism, racism, etc.) that has always tainted it. The forty-three year old, who is also a regional councilor and a European MP in addition to being a lawyer by training, wants to “dédiaboliser”—literally, to “de-diabolize”—the FN by projecting a moderate, respectable demeanor, embracing republican values like secularism, and disassociating the FN from the issues that have long defined it, like the colonial wars and Vichy. The philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy quipped that Marine is the “extreme right with a human face.”  Party hard-liners worry that she has watered down the FN’s message. Yet there really is no reason for them to lose any sleep: Marine continues to tow a rabidly nationalistic line. She wants to pull France out of the euro and restore the franc as the national currency. She intends to scale back immigration and crack down on illegals. She stirred controversy by claiming that non-Muslims in France may unwittingly be eating halal meat. At the same time, in the context of Greece and the global economic crisis, she has been emphasizing her economic program, which endorses “reasoned” protectionism and wage increases for those with low salaries. After a somewhat lackluster campaign, she is now polling around 15%. She has a chance to beat Mélenchon and come in third place (though a replay of her father’s second place finish in 2002 seems unlikely). She appears to have pushed back against Sarkozy’s effort to nibble into the far right’s electorate (male, poorly educated, and of modest income), which he pulled off successfully in 2007. Perpetuating her father’s hatred of the center right, Marine has promised not to endorse any candidate in round two.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon

Left Front (Front de gauche)

2012 has been good for Jean-Luc Mélenchon. In the conventional, predictable world of French electoral politics, the leader of the Left Front is an eloquent and often entertaining new voice. He can be acerbic (and decided un-politically correct), as when, in 2008, he remarked on a French radio station: “What, you like the Dalai Lama because you’ve read Tintin in Tibet?

He can be lyrical in his radicalism, as a recent stump speech attests: “Once again, [France] must be a burning crater, from which the flame of revolution will burst, becoming, as by contagion, the common cause of all European nations … Our revolutions were never revolutions for the French, but for universal humanity.” Mélenchon, a sixty year-old former senator and erstwhile member of the socialist party, is half latter-day Robespierre, half Hugo Chavez (whom he admires) à la française. He is in many respects the heir to Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s distinctive mixture of socialism and republican nationalism.

Politically, he represents an attempt to organize the so-called “gauche anti-libérale”—the anti-free-market left, the movement that has emerged as the successor-ideology to communism on the left end of the French (and even European) political spectrum (significantly, the French Communist Party, which is not running an election this year for the first time since 1974, has endorsed him). As a member of the socialist party, he broke with François Hollande over the 2005 referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, which Mélenchon saw as a Trojan horse for imposing neoliberalism on Europe’s peoples. As the candidate of apostate socialists, who see their party as having gone over to the dark side, he is comparable to Oskar Lafontaine, the leader of Germany’s Die Linke. Mélenchon sees Hollande and the socialists in general as the all-to-willing enablers of the free-market dogma—a stance that is the main justification of his candidacy. Mélenchon is well positioned to be the election’s “third man”: he’s polling around 15%, a fraction of a percentage behind his arch-enemy, Marine Le Pen. He has, however, made it clear that he will endorse Hollande in the second round—to defeat Sarkozy, to be sure, but also, presumably, to negotiate his place in the government that President Hollande will appoint. His gambit is to represent a genuine left alternative to Hollande—yet, unlike Joly or Poutou, to assert his relevance as a “man of government.

Down with the Euro!

Nicolas Dupont-Aignan

Stand Up, Republic (Debout la République)

Among the little candidates, the fifty-year-old Nicolas Dupont-Aignan occupies a clear niche: he is an historic Gaullist and a champion of French sovereignty against supranational organizations of all stripes, from the European Union to NATO. This position, which the French call “souverainiste,” has played an increasingly central role in French politics in recent decades. It has both left- and right-wing iterations. Dupont-Aignan is a mayor and member of parliament who, for much of his career, belonged to Gaullist parties, first the RPR, then the UMP. In 2007, he broke with the UMP and Sarkozy. His grievance was Sarkozy’s support of the Lisbon Treaty, through which France adopted, via a parliamentary route, the main provisions of the European Constitutional Treaty that French voters had roundly rejected in a 2005 referendum. Not only was France renouncing its sovereignty, Dupont-Aignan complained, but it was doing so undemocratically. Since then, he has also opposed the Greek bailout and Sarkozy’s reintegration of France into NATO. While he evokes the memory of De Gaulle and likes to speak of a “une certain idée de la France” (“a certain idea of France”—a Gaullist mantra and the opening line of the general’s war memoirs), Dupont-Aignan’s souverainisme is not implacably ideological. He is not opposed to cooperation between European countries, but wants to reduce the power of European institutions that lack democratic accountability. He wants to make voting obligatory and to recognize “blank” ballots (in the spirit of the “none of the above” system). He would like to keep France out of NATO, which he sees as a Cold War relic, while committing the country to spending 2% of its budget on defense.

The basic problem with Dupont-Aignan’s candidacy is that the niche to which he is appealing is very narrow. Voters can find a more full-throated and extreme form of souverainisme in Marine Le Pen and, arguably, in Jean-Luc Mélenchon. And if you’re a conservative who is unimpressed by these fringe candidates, why not just vote for Sarkozy himself, who at least pays lip service to French nationalism, even as he pursues policies fairly typical of his predecessors.  As a result, Dupont-Aignan is polling between 1 and 2%.

Eva Joly

Europe Ecology-The Greens (Europe Écologie-Les Verts, EELV)

This year’s Green candidate, Eva Joly, has several trademarks. She sports a pair of red spectacles that she’s turned into a symbol of her campaign. She is, moreover, the only candidate running for French president who is not (completely) French: she is also a full-fledged citizen of Norway, who speaks French with a thick Scandinavian accent. Gro Farseth—only later did she start using her middle name, Eva—was born into a working-class family in Oslo in 1943. At 18, she came in third for Miss Norway. In 1964, she travelled to Paris to work as a jeune fille au pair in a bourgeois family. She fell in love, married a Frenchman, and went to law school.  By the eighties, she had become an investigating magistrate (juge d’instruction), working for the white-color crimes division of the Paris tribunal. As a magistrate, Joly became a prominent figure, taking on key members of France’s business and political elite, notably during the investigation of corruption at the French oil company Elf Aquitaine.

Now, Joly is trying her hand at politics. She is running as the candidate of the Greens (Les Verts), a party that in its current form began to develop in the 1990s, and Europe Écologie, an electoral coalition headed up by former-’68-leader-turned-environmentalist Daniel Cohn-Bendit in the last European elections. Joly’s candidacy represents an effort on the part of the Green movement to reestablish itself as a leftist, and not merely an environmentalist party. “Ecology is a struggle,” she says. “If they are to be effective, our solutions will … call into question powerful forces, those of money, profit, and irresponsibility.” (though she concedes that “habit,” too can be obstructive). She emphasizes the dignity of difference—specifically mentioning gays and lesbians—and the importance of individual rights.  She invokes her own dual nationality to protest the right’s obsession with national identity. Yet she has run a lackluster candidate. Voters who find Hollande too moderate have found a tribune in Mélenchon, especially since he addresses ecological issues. The main argument Joly has on Hollande is her commitment to a “sortie du nucléaire”—an end to France’s nuclear program, on which much of its energy depends. Last year’s Fukushima catastrophe (which explains die Grünen’s stunning upset in March 2011’s state election in Baden-Württemberg) still matters greatly to the Greens. Yet Hollande has tried to minimize this issue by promising to reduce France’s production of nuclear energy by 50 to 75% over the next decade or so.

She’s polling around 3%. Part of the issue may be her occasionally gruff personality. When asked recently what she thought of a centrist politician who accused her of not being a real environmentalist, Joly replied: “Je l’emmerde” (“Screw her”).

Philippe Poutou

The New Anti-Capitalist Party (Nouveau parti anticapitaliste, NPA)

This is the New Anti-Capitalist Party’s first presidential election—in a way. The NPA’s origins lie in the 2007 presidential election, when the candidate of the Trotskyist Communist Revolutionary League (Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, or LCR), the charismatic baby-faced postman, Olivier Besancenot, won 4.25%, beating its archrival, Communist Party, for a second election in a row. The LCR emerged out of the student movement of the sixties, which was apparent in its mixture of that era’s expansive conception of liberation and its intellectual outlook with traditional Marxist-Leninism. Since the 1990s, the LCR immersed itself in the burgeoning anti-globalization movement. Besancenot’s success in 2007 led the LCR to try to create a broad alliance of anti-libéraux—“anti-liberals,” in the French sense of “opponents to free-market ideology,” which it associated with the World Trade Organization as well as the European Union.

This gambit resulted in the fusion of the LCR into the NPA in 2009. While adhering to the tradition of revolutionary socialism, the NPA embraces a “twenty-first century socialism, that is democratic, ecological, and feminist.” It believes in class struggle and expropriating big business, but it also defends causes dear to the cultural left, such as anti-racism and ending nuclear energy. This year, the NPA is represented by a genial forty-five year old worker named Philippe Poutou. His day job is as a maintenance mechanic in Ford automobile factory near Bordeaux. He takes home 1,800 euros a month—around $29,000 a year. Mocking Sarkozy’s 2007 slogans, Poutou says he is the candidate of “the France that gets up early, not the France earns more.” While he has an appealing, laid back demeanor, he lacks the charisma of the popular and easily recognizable Besancenot. He is polling around 1%. While the NPA is deeply critical of “social liberalism”—a term of contempt for referring to the “bourgeois left”—Poutou has clearly stated that his goal is to defeat Sarkozy—a clear hint that the NPA will endorse Hollande on the second round. If Hollande wins, the NPA will position itself for what the far left likes to call “the social third round”—waves of strikes and street demonstrations aimed, in this case, at pulling a future socialist government further to the left.

Nathalie Arthaud

Workers’ Struggle (Lutte ouvrière, LO)

Knowing the subtle nuances between Trotskyist candidates used to be a point of pride among French politics aficionados. Those days are over. In 2012, there’s only one left: Nathalie Arthaud, the forty-two year old candidate of Lutte Ouvrière (LO, or Workers’ Struggle).   Arthaud teaches economics and management at a high school in Paris’ northern suburbs. She’s also been involved in local politics.  Arlette Laguiller, Arthaud’s predecessor, was its standard-bearer in every election from 1974 to 2007. Ten years ago, she managed to win 5.7% of the vote.

As far as French parties go, the LO is in a league of its own: it has the reputation of being insular and secretive in the extreme. The French press often refers to it as a “cult.” Three years ago, its historic leader, a man named Robert Barcia who went under the nom de guerre “Hardy,” died—and the LO managed to hide the fact for over a year. The reason, apparently, is that the Trotskyist organization, which once had to protect itself against the Communist Party, believed that following the Soviet Union’s collapse, the world had entered a long neoliberal eclipse. Consequently, the party had to hunker down on its ideological positions, protecting its purity and faith, like monks in infidel territory, until the world was once again receptive to its message.

So while the LO still presents candidates in elections, it does so only as a way to disseminate its ideas: expropriate bankers, fuse all banks into one, and make layoffs illegal. Arthaud has no interest in an alliance with the NPA (the current incarnation of the LO’s onetime Trotskyist rival, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire), Mélenchon, and certainly not Hollande, who, as far as the LO is concerned, might as well be Mitt Romney. “For LO,” Arthaud explains, “electoral moments are not essential. What is fundamental is that the people go down to the street, as in 1995, as in 1968, or as in 1936. I tell myself that such a moment could return quickly. And if we had to wait a long time, it wouldn’t bother me much. I’m only a link in a chain.” LO is polling around 1%. Its kingdom is not of this world.

Jacques Cheminade

Solidarity and Progress (Solidarité & Progrès)

The French are known for having lots of candidates in their elections. Yet most of the time, they at least represent something—a particular flavor of Trotskyism, a schism within the ecological movement. Jacques Cheminade, a seventy-year-old, Argentina-born former civil servant, is an exception: he represents nothing and (almost) no one. In 1974, while he was working in the French consulate in New York, he met American conspiracy theorist Lyndon Larouche. Since the late seventies, Cheminade has run the French franchise of Larouche’s bizarre political empire, where right-wing political paranoia makes strange bedfellows with a leftist critique of international capitalism. Like his American mentor, Cheminade believes that the queen of England controls much of the world and owes her wealth to drug money. He thinks AIDS was a Soviet plot. The one interesting thing about Cheminade is that, like LaRouche, he has long been a rabid opponent of the International Monetary Fund and the global financial system, which at least gives his ideas a certain ring of relevance. He last ran for president in 1995 (coming in dead last, with 0.27% of the vote). However, during his last campaign, he predicted an impending global financial meltdown—a fact that some now see as prophetic (even if he was thirteen years off). His main solution to the world economic crisis is a global Glass-Steagall act—that, and investing in “human creativity.” His current poll numbers are (and will remain) statistically insignificant.

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5 responses to “The First Round: The Ten Candidates

  1. This is a fair picture of the various candidates.
    The trouble is that there is a bias in the great French media outlets in terms of the amounts of prime tlme in favor of the so-called “big” candidates. Comments, even today, rarelly point out the real issues for the future. My own stance is that the major threats looming ahead have not really been taken into account. Generally, there is a lot of emphasis on how impossible it is to find a way out of the free-trade dogma. The climate crisis, for instance, was hardly mentioned. To try to cope with such issues requires enhanced knowledge of those issues. This is simply not provided.

  2. Thanks for this. Now I know everything.

    Except, does Hollande always have that pop-eyed smile on his face?

  3. A very nice rundown of the entire field.
    I read in Le Monde this morning that, according to a poll by Sciences Po, turnout is going to be a real wildcard, which might have something to do with Hollande’s observation, “You’ll see: Le Pen’s tally is the great unknown.”
    Le Monde sees third place as a tossup between Melenchon and Le Pen, with Bayrou trying to avoid being banished again to wander in the political wilderness and Joly trying to avoid humiliation.
    In his usual analytical way, FH sees three possibilities for the first round: a dark outcome where Sarko pulls it out, an intermediate “gray” outcome where things tighten up and the rosy picture of probable victory for the PS. Let’s take the rosy view.

  4. This just in: Le Monde reports early returns giving Hollande a 28.4% to 25.5% edge over Sarko.

  5. Thanks Jean-Michel, Scott, and Paul for all the comments. I’m hoping to write more tonight, but for now, a few thoughts:
    – It’s a good night for Hollande. He beat the incumbent on round one; this has never happened before in the Fifth Republic. It’s also the best first round score for a socialist candidate since 1988, when Mitterrand was running for reelection.
    – It’s also a very good night for Marine Le Pen. Indeed, it’s the evening’s main surprise: she wins around 18.5%, the best score EVER for the FN in a presidential election. This is nearly twice the score of her dad in 2007, and better than the result that brought him to the second round in 2002. Politically, it means that Sarkozy’s 2007 strategy—to co-opt the FN by adopting its discourse—has backfired: rather than boosting Sarkozy, it has benefited the FN. It also means that in some ways, the FN has emerged as France’s leading opposition party. It’s hard for Hollande to present himself really as representing a fundamental policy shift, at least on the issues that matter to the French. European integration, for instance, wouldn’t change significantly under a socialist government. Hollande will just try to make the policies pursued in recent decades more acceptable, efficient, fair, and less corrupt. Marine Le Pen represents real change: pulling out of the euro, restoring the franc, “reasoned protectionism,” a crackdown on illegal immigration. Quite simply, Hollande does not offer something as dramatically different as Le Pen (I’m not pro-Le Pen, needless to say! I’m simply saying that, objectively, she’s more of an opposition candidate than Hollande).
    – How will the 46-47% of the electorate who voted for someone other than Hollande or Sarkozy vote? What, in other words, are the “reserves” each has? Clearly, things are very bad from this perspective for Sarkozy. The only disqualified candidate who will probably endorse him is Dupont-Aignan, who got around 2%. Mélenchon, Joly, and Potou have or will endorse Hollande in some fashion. This gets Hollande to around 45%. The big question is: how will those who opted for (essentially) right wing candidates who ran against Sarkozy vote in the second round? This includes the “soft” or centrist right of Bayrou and the hard (but oppositional) right of Le Pen. I doubt that these voters will come out strongly in favor of Hollande. But I find it hard to believe that people who voted for them will line up massively behind Sarkozy. Voting for Bayrou or Le Pen is a vote against Sarkozy, not just an attempt to push Sarkozy further to the center or to the right. I suspect that quite a few Bayrou voters will cast a ballot for Hollande. I’m not sure this is true of Le Pen. I think it’s quite likely that a lot of FN voters will sit out the second round. This could, however, play to Hollande’s favor.
    – Sarkozy’s second round strategy is now at least partially clear: in his election night speech, he challenged Hollande to three debates. He’s gambling that he can beat Sarkozy in a live performance. And Sarkozy does his best in a fight. Still, it’s a high risk strategy, and maybe necessary but is certainly not sufficient to pull off an upset.

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