Sarkozy and Hollande head for a second round

President Sarkozy and M. Hollande now have two weeks to make their case to the French people. Only a fool would pick a winner at this stage

Nicolas Sarkozy, Francois Hollande: Face Off
Daniel Hamilton
On 23 April 2012 09:50

With nearly all the votes counted in the first round of the French Presidential election, it is now been confirmed that incumbent centre-right President, Nicolas Sarkozy will face Socialist, François Hollande in a run-off on 6th May. As of 08:00 Paris time, Hollande is outpacing Sarkozy by a 28 percent to 27 percent margin.

While it was never seriously in doubt that the standard bearers of the ‘establishment’ parties of the left and right would face each other in a second round of voting, it ought to be a matter of concern to the two front-runners that their combined support totalled only 55 percent in the first round.

Instead, voters turned in large numbers to the far-right, Marine Le Pen and communist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon who polled 18 percent and 11 percent of the vote respectively. Bringing up the rear with 9 percent was former Education Minister and centrist candidate, François Bayrou, whose supporters in the 2007 race were decisive in handing victory to Sarkozy.

A simplistic reading of the election results would lead one to conclude that support for candidates of the right – namely Sarkozy and Le Pen – stood at 45 percent while that combined ‘leftist’ vote for Hollande and Mélenchon totalled only 39 percent. Such a reading would, however, ignore entirely the complexities of a political system which fails to interpret ‘right’ and ‘left’ in the same way as Anglo-Saxon political systems.

While one can safely assume that supporters of Mélenchon will transfer en masse to Hollande – indeed, the defeated candidate called on his supporters to do exactly that at a rally in Marseille last night – calculating where Mme Le Pen’s votes will go is much harder. 

While, with their anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric, the United Kingdom’s British National Party or Dutch Party of Freedom are largely seen as parties of the right, the French Front National appeals to a curious mix of proud nationalists, xenophobes, anti-Islam campaigners, and globalisation-sceptic voters that cannot accurately be described as being on the ‘left’ or ‘right’.

Indeed, Marine Le Pen’s campaign made a conscious effort to move beyond the immigrant-bashing rhetoric deployed by her father (who came second to Jacques Chirac in the 2002 Presidential contest) in order to pursue a range of policies designed to broaden the party’s image. Such an approach included advocating trade protectionism in relation to agricultural goods in order to appeal to the country’s powerful agrarian lobby, an end to nuclear power, sweeping tax increases for large corporations coupled with dramatic cuts for family-run businesses and an exit from the European Union – a body she claims has led France into its current economic malaise.

An opinion poll taken yesterday evening suggested that 45 percent of those who backed Mme Le Pen would back Sarkozy in a second round with 12 percent transferring to Hollande. Crucially, however, 43 percent say that they plan to abstain. Encouraging this group – which numbers roughly 8 percent of the voting public – to back them will prove decisive in determining who will seize the keys to the Élysée Palace on 6th May.

Writing soon after the polls closed yesterday evening, the former British Europe Minister, Denis MacShane suggested that “Sarkozy may be tempted to play the anti-immigrant, rejection-of-modernity card to win Le Pen votes but, by doing so, may drive his own centrist supporters”.

This is undoubtedly true, given both the decades-old revulsion many Catholic voters and bourgeois urban professionals who backed the President feel towards the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen - and, by proxy, his daughter. Such an appeal would also endanger the President’s prospects of attracting votes from supporters of the centrist Bayrou, whose supporters are currently evenly split between Sarkozy and Hollande (33 percent to 35 percent).

A direct appeal to Le Pen’s supporters also has its potential pitfalls for Hollande. An unscientific canvass of polling districts suggests that turnout in the infamous and impoverished banlieues on the outskirts of France’s major cities increased significantly yesterday – largely in favour of Hollande and Mélenchon. With many of these areas being home to ethnic minority voters angry at what they perceive as Sarkozy’s bellicose approach to tackling social problems, any perception that Hollande is pandering to Le Pen supporters could lead to this group voting with their feet – by sitting on their hands.

Conversely, a failure on Hollande’s part to acknowledge and engage with the anti-globalisation and immigrant-sceptic nature of the Front National’s support base leaves a fifth of the electorate ripe for the picking by Sarkozy.

Watching both Hollande and Sarkozy’s speeches yesterday evening, it is easy to understand why the French public are unenthused by the two men vying to hold the country’s highest elected office.

In the case of François Hollande, this was never meant to be his race. Were it not for that infamous altercation in a New York hotel room, the debonair Dominique Strauss-Kahn would almost certainly have been his party’s candidate. Instead, the Socialist Party were forced to make a choice between two candidates of bland and mediocre stature in Hollande himself and Lille Mayor Martine Aubry. Hollande has done his best to cultivate an Iain Duncan Smith-style ‘quiet man’ image designed to portray an aura of stability and cool judgement. In reality, he has just left many voters cold.

In many respects, Sarkozy’s problem is the direct opposite. The tone for his Presidency was set on the evening of his election in 2007 when he celebrated victory at the elite Fouquet’s restaurant on the Champs Elysées. His marriage to Carla Bruni, which many of the public still believe to be an elaborate sham which will fall apart shortly after May 6th if he fails to be re-elected, further aided his “bling bling” image. While in 2007 the French public fell in love with Sarkozy’s swash-buckling rhetoric on job-creation and boosting the country’s standing in the world, five years of economic stagnation have led many to conclude that the emperor has no clothes.

With a job approval rating of just 20 percent, Sarkozy should surely be doomed in his second round battle with the dull Hollande.

His speech last night proved his mettle. While he was the first incumbent President in decades to trail a challenger in the first round of voting, his rhetoric was that of a winner; thanking his supporters, appealing to those who did not vote for him to join him in a noble-sounding conquest to build a “stronger France” and challenging his rival to three set-piece debates in the next two weeks.

Hollande’s approach is not, however, without its strengths. As MacShane argues, Hollande’s advantage “is that like a Clement Attlee in 1945 or Harold Wilson in 1974 he is seen as Monsieur Ordinaire - a safe pair of hands after Flash Sarko”. After years of the aristocratically patrician Chirac and coarsely bombastic Sarkozy, the present age of fiscal austerity may well lend itself to challenger who, in a first for French Presidential races, does not give the impression of over-promising with the expectation of promptly under-delivering.

President Sarkozy and M. Hollande now have two weeks to make their case to the French people. Only a fool would pick a winner at this stage.

Daniel Hamilton is Director for European Affairs at Bell Pottinger Public Affairs

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