How Economic Austerity Is Driving Voter Discontent in Europe

Justin Vaïsse
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

April 23, 2012

Editor’s Note: Justin Vaisse discusses France’s first round election results and growing discontent with European austerity measures in an interview with PBS’ “Newshour”.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the French election and the wider reaction against economic austerity programs in Europe, we turn to Justin Vaisse, a senior fellow at the Center on the U.S. and Europe at the Brookings Institution.

Well, a lot of big headlines out of this vote. The incumbent comes in second, a huge turnout, and candidates of the far right and left do very well. What’s going on?

JUSTIN VAISSE: They did indeed.

The election was a surprise, in that the forecasted participation was — was very low. And it turned out that the French voted by more than 80 percent, which is not a historic high, but which is very high. And, yes, they’re not really many surprises in the results. They look like — more or less like the polls predicted them.

However, the National Front, with almost 18 percent of the vote, is also at a very high point historically.
RAY SUAREZ: Candidates to the left of Hollande and to the right of Sarkozy got almost — well, just a little more than one out of every four votes cast. Who has the riskiest road in trying to get those voters over to their side, Hollande or Sarkozy?

JUSTIN VAISSE: It’s obviously Sarkozy.

Sarkozy has an uphill battle because he got 27 percent of the vote, and so now he needs to gather votes from other candidates. The problem is that the reservoirs he can tap into are the extreme right on the one hand, but they are — only about half of the extreme right voters have announced that they would vote for him.

And then on the other hand, the center where Francois Bayrou, the centrist candidate, got about 9 percent of the vote, but here only about a third of Francois Bayrou’s voters say they would vote for President Sarkozy. And so not only these are small reservoirs of votes, but Sarkozy must straddle the ideological divide between the extreme right and the center and he must choose between one or the other, and he probably will not be able to get both. And so it is for him a very difficult task ahead.

RAY SUAREZ: A two-round presidential race sets up some fascinating dynamics for an American. What is usually the pattern? Do the people whose candidates didn’t make the second round stay home, or do they finally come home to another candidate?

JUSTIN VAISSE: No, they actually generally come home. And you don’t see a very big drop in participation in the second round.

You know, the saying in France is that in the first round you vote for your friends, you vote for your heart, and in the second round you vote against your enemy. That is to, say what motivates to you go to vote is to eliminate the candidate that you really do not want to see as a president.

Watch the full interview at »