The 2002 French Elections: A Drama in Five Acts

France has lived through an extraordinary electoral drama in recent months, best characterized as four acts of elections (two rounds of the presidential election, two rounds of the legislative elections), followed by the present fifth act in which the government’s program is finally understood by the people that voted for it. In each act, the French electorate misjudged the effect of their votes, but in the wake of each of their mistakes, they adapted their behavior to the actual result, and in so doing imbued the next act with a logic of its own.

Act One: (April 21, Presidential election, first round). A French presidential election is a simple majority, first-past-the-post contest. Nonetheless, the voters in the first round of the Presidential election behaved as if their votes would be translated into some sort of proportional representation. Voters seemed bored by the supposedly inevitable final match-up between President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and were not really able to identify any difference between them on the issues. Thus they decided to send a “message,” choosing either to abstain and wait for the decisive round, or to vote for one of the other fourteen candidates, often as a form of protest.

Following a European trend—but for the first time in a French national election—security and crime was the most important issue for French voters. Accordingly, both Chirac and Jospin placed security on the top of their campaign agenda, and proposed almost exactly the same solutions for France’s crime problem (e.g. creation of a new ministry for law and order, increases in police, and reforms of the judicial system). Perhaps as a result, an opinion poll published on April 3 showed for the first time that Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National, was seen as the best candidate to address the crime problem. As he had always claimed, people prefer the original to the imitation. Moreover, the right has always been considered more credible on this issue than the supposedly naive left.