The 2012 French Presidential Elections: A Primer

In 1981, Socialist candidate François Mitterrand was elected on a bold program to “Change life” (“Changer la vie”), with 110 progressive reforms to back up his aspiration, from the nationalization of banks and a 35-hour workweek to the abolition of the death penalty. The program was so audacious that in order to reassure the French electorate, he used the slogan “A peaceful force” (“La force tranquille”). This comes in strong contrast with the current campaign, where Socialist candidate François Hollande runs on the more restrained slogan of “Change, now” (“Le changement, c’est maintenant”), capitalizing on the pervasive discontent with incumbent President Sarkozy – and puts forward 60 mostly cautious proposals.

The contrast is similarly stark on the right. In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy followed a strategy to exploit the widely-shared readiness for a “clean break” (“La rupture“) from the past after 12 years under the increasingly sclerotic administration of President Jacques Chirac. Sarkozy managed to set the agenda of the campaign by making daring and sometimes iconoclastic proposals, like tax cuts on overtime, affirmative action and the creation of a “Ministry of Immigration and National Identity” (with which he captured a third of extreme-right Jean-Marie Le Pen’s vote). But Sarkozy now campaigns on continuity rather than rupture and on a protective, “Strong France” (“La France forte“), often playing catch-up with ideas and issues launched by other candidates like the controversy over halal meat triggered by the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie.

The reason for such electoral moderation on both sides of the spectrum and for such an uninspiring campaign (most French even find it boring, according to polls) has a name: the Euro crisis. 2012 is not a time for making wild promises or shaking up the status quo. Given the budgetary constraints and the general lack of trust, there are virtually no margins for maneuver for politicians, and in any case there is little reservoir of ardor, much less illusion, in the wary electorate. This paper sets out to provide an overview of the 2012 election season in France – elections in time of crisis.

The Shape of Elections in the Land of the Semi-presidential Regime

The French will go to the polls four times this Spring. They will vote for the first round of the Presidential elections on Sunday, April 22, and, in the virtually certain case of a run-off, they will pick the winner two weeks later, on Sunday, May 6. At this point, it appears that the only two candidates who can make it to the second round are incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy and socialist candidate François Hollande. In 2002, because there were multiple “small” candidates on the left, socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was edged out by Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round, leading to an easy victory of more than 82% for incumbent Jacques Chirac in the second round. Such a stunning surprise is always possible, but unlikely this year. In the past three months, Marine Le Pen, who was getting close to threatening the two leading candidates, has seen her popularity decline and is now trailing them by about 10 points in the polls.

Whoever is elected on May 6 will then have to win a majority in the National Assembly – or face a situation of “cohabitation” or divided government, French style.  In the constitutional system of the fifth Republic, the President is preeminent, and cannot be dismissed by the legislative branch. However, he cannot pass laws in the National Assembly without a friendly majority, and the Prime Minister he appoints needs to be supported by legislators. Frequent situations of uneasy “cohabitation” between a Socialist President and a conservative Prime Minister (1986-1988, 1993-1995) or vice-versa (1997-2002) led to a bipartisan constitutional reform in 2000 that reduced the presidential mandate to 5 years instead of 7, and synchronized it with the legislative cycle. While this reduced the chances that the French would send a politician to the Elysée and then elect a National Assembly of the opposite side one month later, it by no means guaranteed it. On June 10 and 17, France will elect the 577 members of the Parliament, which includes for the first time representatives from French expatriates (one seat covers Canada and the U.S.). It is not certain that the electorate will give either Nicolas Sarkozy or François Hollande a majority. A situation of cohabitation could greatly complicate efforts to solve the Eurozone crisis, as there is no real tradition of effective coalition governance in France.

The French presidential elections have particular dynamics. For the first time, the Socialists held a nation-wide, open primary in 2011, while other parties like the Greens and the National Front held closed primaries restricted to card-carrying members. But anyone can be a candidate as long as he or she gathers 500 signatures from local elected officials (mostly mayors) before March 15. This makes it possible for well-organized but fringe candidates or even wacky ones like Jacques Cheminade, an affiliate of Lyndon Larouche, to run. It also makes it difficult for some others, most notably Marine Le Pen, to gather signatures, as they are perceived as political endorsements by the mayors and are made public (Le Pen eventually managed to reach the 500 threshold before March 15). The official list of candidates was proclaimed on March 19, and this opened a new phase of the campaign, in which all ten were allotted the exact same airtime on all TV and radio channels – a rule enforced by the CSA, a government agency which keeps the official record of broadcast times. Starting April 9, candidates will also have free time to present their program on public TV and radio channels, but negative ads are prohibited (candidates cannot buy TV time).

Campaign finance laws passed from 1988 to 2003 have brought strict, although imperfect rules to electoral campaigns, through a combination of limits on donations, public financing and spending caps. No citizen can make donations of more than $10,000 a year to a party ($6,000 to a single candidate), and corporations cannot contribute at all, unlike in the U.S. after the 2010 Citizens United decision. Apart from individual donations, candidates can finance their campaign through the backing of their political party, and can also count on public financing (on top of free airtime in public media). The State reimburses 47% of the expenditures made by large candidates, but only about 5% of those of candidates not reaching 5% of the vote in the first round – which makes it a crucial threshold to reach. Whatever their source, however, campaign expenditures by each candidate are strictly capped at $22 million, and up to $30 million for those who make it to the second round. In 2007 for example, Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign for the Elysée cost $28 million, while Barack Obama’s 2008 quest for the White House cost more than $650 million.

Who Will Win? An Overview of the Main Candidates

Who will win the 2012 presidential race depends on multiple factors, but the run-off type of election gives special importance to the dynamics that take place between April 22 and May 6 – dynamics that can only partially be captured by polls about voting intentions for either round. The four major candidates typically get between 15 and 30% of the votes in the first round, and the top two – generally one from the right, one from the left – square off in the second round. For this reason, it is crucial to evaluate the overall balance of power between right and left, and in the recent months, the cumulated scores of left-wing candidates has tended to be slightly higher than that of right-wing candidates. Said differently, and assuming that Hollande and Sarkozy face off in the second round on May 6, Hollande can count on picking up most of the first-round votes for extreme-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon (now reaching a high of 15%) and smaller leftist candidates on top of his own original voters.  Nicolas Sarkozy can count on a plurality of the votes for extreme-right candidate Marine Le Pen on top of his.

However, there are at least four wild cards. One is the repartition between Sarkozy, Hollande and abstention of the first-round voters going for François Bayrou, the centrist candidate – it is now polled at 44/32/24, but it could change. A second factor is the horse trading going on between the two rounds, with deals, commitments and endorsements between the two remaining candidates and their former competitors, especially the extremes – deals which can in turn influence centrist voters. A third one is the level of abstention, forecasted to reach potentially 32% (the highest point ever was 28.4% in 2002) and its differentiated impact on candidates. And the last unknown is the magnitude of the favorable impression created by winning the first round, which can generate political momentum (Sarkozy enjoyed such momentum after his strong first round showing of 31% in 2007).

Among the ten candidates who obtained their 500 signatures, five are particularly interesting to follow: the two main contenders, the two more extreme candidates, and the one from the center.

  • Nicolas Sarkozy, supported by the conservative and Gaullist party UMP, is conducting a paradoxical campaign, which resembles that of 2007 when he was Minister of the Interior. On the one hand, he runs on his record of reforms and accomplishments.  He tries to capitalize on his image as an international “crisis President”, from his role in bringing about a cease-fire in the 2008 Russia-Georgia war to his constant meetings with Angela Merkel to save the Euro. Don’t change horses in midstream, and trust me to protect France, he seems to say. But on the other hand, he is running as an anti-Establishment candidate, criticizing the small Parisian elite of journalists and intellectuals for being out of touch with the people, while he tries to offer a populist alternative to the extremes. This is especially important for his hope of capturing the extreme-right vote as he did in 2007, and according to the polls, the strategy seems to be working again. During the month of March, he closed the gap with François Hollande for the first round and is now credited with a slight, though statistically insignificant, lead (as of April 2).  However, he still trails the Socialist candidate in the second round, with a 54 to 46 projection. It is important to stress that Sarkozy caught up with Hollande before the tragic terrorist attacks in Toulouse (March 19) and the shooting of the terrorist (March 22). This “October surprise” is not what has saved Sarkozy, as some have written, even if the government has kept the issue of terrorism alive in the following weeks, due to Sarkozy’s lead on security issues. Among the few measures that Sarkozy has put forward, the renegotiation of the Schengen agreements (see below) and the implementation of a “social VAT” (whereby social expenditures are financed through an increase of taxation on consumption  rather than payroll taxes) stand out.
  • François Hollande benefitted from the Spring 2011 downfall of IMF Director, and likely winner of the Socialist primary, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Even though he has no government experience, Hollande has been preparing himself for this campaign for some time, and has shaped an image that wants to both emulate that of François Mitterrand (the only Socialist President of the fifth Republic, 1981-1995) and draw a strong contrast with that of Nicolas Sarkozy. The traits that the public tends to reject in Sarkozy – his constant agitation and sudden bursts of chaotic activism, his excessive familiarity and taste for ostentation – Hollande tries to reverse by emphasizing his restraint and cool temper, his presidential posture, and his predictability. But will this “no-drama and no-nonsense” image, compounded by the desire, on the left, to break with a string of defeats (1995, 2002, 2007), be enough to get him elected? In March, his left-wing challenger Jean-Luc Mélenchon gained on Hollande, which could force the Socialist candidate to veer towards the left either before or after the first round, thereby endangering his standing with centrists. Unlike Mélenchon’s, Hollande’s proposals are compatible with the imperative of reducing the deficit – his plan is to balance the budget in 2017 (Sarkozy has 2016 as his target) – which prevents wild promises. His most audacious measure to ward off Mélenchon would be a marginal tax rate at 75% for incomes above $1.33 million a year. While Sarkozy raised the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 (and from 65 to 67 for full pension benefits), Hollande would revert to 60 only for those who accumulated 41.5 years of work.
  • Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former Socialist, has coalesced several tendencies of the left and the extreme-left under his charismatic leadership, including proposals the Communist party and the left wing of the Socialists. One of his inspirations for the Front de Gauche (the coalition party that supports him) is the German leftist party Die Linke. Mélenchon was one of the leaders of the “No” vote for the European constitution in 2005, which was rejected by voters from right and left. His proposals include raising the minimum wage and capping high salaries, while slapping a 100% marginal tax rate on incomes above $500,000 and imposing a 35-hour workweek (which in practice was never strictly applied), as well as protectionist measures. Mélenchon has seen a surge in voting intentions in late March to almost 15%, even overtaking Marine Le Pen as the “third man” (or woman) of the race in some polls, and has been credited with winning back some blue collar voters from her (factory workers have largely shifted to the National Front in the last decades).
  • Marine le Pen has been trying to “normalize” the extreme-right National Front party she inherited from her father Jean-Marie in 2010 – that is, to remove the racist and anti-Semitic undertones and re-orient the party towards a more classical approach to politics, with a full political program rather than an exclusive focus on immigration and a posture of pure protest. However, that strategy has not yielded good results, as some of her proposals, like abandoning the Euro to revert to the Franc or abandoning the Schengen agreements altogether, have not been especially popular. She has seen her voting intentions decrease to around 15% – way too low to hope for a surprising second place like her father in 2002. As a result, she has reverted to a more traditional anti-immigrant, anti-Islam and populist posture (including anti-capitalist themes), but Nicolas Sarkozy seems to have made inroads in her electorate, and she has not benefitted from a “Toulouse effect”.
  • François Bayrou, although labeled a centrist, represents the traditional non-Gaullist moderate right in the tradition of President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (1974-1981). His party, called the Modem, is strongly pro-European and rejects the populist and anti-immigrant undertones of Sarkozy. In 2007, Bayrou made a sensation when he got 18.6% of the vote in the first round, but this time he is suffering from the fact that François Hollande, as a moderate Socialist, may have more realistic chances to beat Nicolas Sarkozy. Bayrou’s voting intentions have remained stuck around 12%. One strong point in his program is his willingness to tackle the debt problem (French debt has surged to 86% of GDP), a problem he had already addressed in his 2007 campaign. But economic constraints also makes his program resemble that of his two opponents – a typical situation in times of crisis when politicians have little leeway.

The remaining five candidates collectively represent less than 5% of voting intentions. Only Eva Joly, the candidate for the Greens, is worth mentioning. While she represents a coalition of various pro-environment parties, she has been unable to interject her voice in the campaign, and is stagnating at around 2.5%. Her low appeal is very much linked with the financial crisis (public opinion is less mobilized around environmental issues), but is probably also due to her shortcomings as a candidate – she doesn’t have the charisma of other Green politicians like Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Noël Mamère (who garnered 5.25% of the vote in 2002) or Nicolas Hulot, who got the major candidates in 2007 to commit to a “pact for ecology” which resulted in actual reforms by Nicolas Sarkozy.

From “Merkozy” to a Franco-German Dispute? The European Conundrum

The tragic terrorist attacks in Toulouse have not changed the course of the campaign, even if they have brought a renewed focus on immigration and Islam – which Marine Le Pen and Nicolas Sarkozy had been emphasizing before. But when French voters are asked what issues are most important in their eyes, they only place immigration in 8th position (36% say that fighting illegal immigration should be a top priority). The most important issue is clearly unemployment (73%). Far behind come education (56%), health (55%), wages and purchasing power (54%), the reduction of public debt (53%), the fight against job insecurity (52%), and crime (43%). While the issue of Europe/EU is conspicuously absent from that list, it is present through the problem of debt, which is the first priority in the eyes of voters on the right (68% against 65% for unemployment), and Europe is evident in the positioning of the main candidates. Neither of Sarkozy nor Hollande is willing to make bold proposals, however, for fear of antagonizing the segment of their constituency which voted “no” to the European constitution in 2005 (the more radical wings of their party and the two extremes), but they have used Europe during the election season.  

Nicolas Sarkozy started the campaign by showcasing his proximity to German Chancellor Angela Merkel (from conservative party CDU), who agreed to endorse him and shockingly refused to receive candidate François Hollande as is customary (she saw both Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal in 2007, and European foreign leaders in general find a way to receive their counterpart’s rivals in a formal or informal setting). Sarkozy has highlighted the power and importance of the Franco-German couple which had in effect been in the cockpit of the Eurozone crisis for the previous two years, in order to reap the electoral benefits of his brinkmanship (and so far successful) negotiations, even touting the virtues of the German economic model and the importance of European disciplines.

However, in January and February, Sarkozy started distancing himself from that argument, probably for fear of antagonizing the extreme-right constituency.  There were also concerns about appearing excessively subservient to a foreign power at a time when France was losing its AAA rating from one credit ratings agency and commentators were stressing that the Franco-German couple was becoming increasingly unequal. As a result, plans were shelved to have Angela Merkel participate in a Sarkozy electoral meeting, and the President himself started to adopt a harder line on European issues so as to court the extreme right electorate. In a large electoral meeting in Villepinte (March 11), he demanded a harder EU line on unfair trade competition and threatened to pull France out of the free-circulation Schengen zone unless Brussels clamped down on illegal immigration. This very unpractical proposal (it is legally impossible to get out of Schengen without getting out of the EU, and France would have to hire thousands of customs agents and policemen) was meant to reconcile the Euroskeptics with the pro-Europeans of his party and also with his own record of successfully building up a more integrated EU. If Europe can be shown to protect France from unfair trade and immigration, then he was certainly right to side with Angela Merkel to save the Euro.

Sarkozy’s attack on Schengen had another effect: it weakened one of his main arguments against François Hollande, namely, that Hollande was acting irresponsibly by asking for a renegotiation of the Fiscal Compact. The new EU treaty was agreed upon in December 2011 and signed by 25 out of 27 member states in early March 2012, and imposes new fiscal disciplines on countries to prevent the recurrence of future debt crises (and provide Germany with a quid pro quo to increase its solidarity with countries in difficulty). Hollande, who said he would ask for the renegotiation in order to add a component on growth as early as December, was indeed putting in question the voice of France. This partly explained Angela Merkel’s antagonistic reaction. However, Hollande and his advisers suggested that what he was really after was additional measures to stimulate growth, without which disciplines would be grossly insufficient to get Europe out of the financial ditch.  Hollande indicated that there were many different ways to do this – for example, by negotiating an additional protocol without changing the text of the treaty. And as time passed by, his position seemed more and more in line with other Europeans like Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Monti, economists and business people who fear the consequences of excessive austerity (this is also, incidentally, the position of the Obama administration), but more importantly the German Social-Democratic party SPD, without which Angela Merkel cannot get the Fiscal Compact ratified in the Bundestag. In other words, Hollande’s gambit is turning out to be favorable both in electoral terms and for his leverage vis-à-vis the German Chancellor, should he be elected.

So Europe is a paradoxical issue in the French campaign, both absent from the day-to-day presidential campaign, and very much present as a background issue. And the alignment of President Sarkozy’s UMP with Angela Merkel’s CDU on the Fiscal Compact, mirrored by François Hollande’s Parti Socialiste with Sigmar Gabiel SPD, marks another step, albeit limited, in the Europeanization of national politics. In this respect, the result of May 6 will undoubtedly have a profound impact on European leaders’ ability to cope with the financial crisis.