France: The crisis has voted against Sarkozy
23 April 2012
The first round of the presidential election, which was billed as a referendum on the fate of outgoing president, was marked by an unprecedented protest vote: a development which will be a godsend for the far right and a major challenge for the socialist favourite to win the contest, François Hollande.
The crisis has voted, making its voice heard on a massive scale. The French have not succumbed to democratic disenchantment. On Sunday 22 April, they went to the polls in large numbers [79.47% cast their ballots] on a day which was not marked by the low turnouts for the European and regional votes of recent years.
We should interpret their actions as an expression and renewed confirmation of the predominant role played by the presidential election in our institutional system and the increasing weight attributed to the presidency in French politics. In recent years, this has been buoyed not only by the adoption of a five year presidential term and the decision to have the race for the Elysée coincide with general elections, but also by the concentration of power which has been a feature Nicolas Sarkozy’s hyperactive mandate.
Having said that, the high turnout was mainly prompted by dismay and exasperation at the ongoing economic crisis, rather than enthusiasm for the political programmes on offer. In his bid for a second term, the current tenant of the Elysée Palace was desperate to avoid an anti-Sarkozy referendum in the first round of voting. However, the results speak for themselves: the outgoing president was unable to mobilise the voters who supported him in 2007, or to emerge as the leader after the first ballot.
Like the peoples of the Arab world, the French have opted to send a polite but firm message to their head of state. Let the outgoing outgo: a sentiment that the crisis has also made a feature of the political landscape in most European countries in recent years. In France, our compatriots voiced their dissatisfaction with an imposing surge in support for Marine Le Pen.
Left still not assured of victory on 6 May
The record-breaking performance by the leader of the Front National (who took more than 18% of the vote) was clearly the main development in Sunday’s ballot. The extreme right party has passed another milestone. With her personality, her style and her proposals, the daughter of the FN’s founder has succeeded in the drive to detoxify her party’s image which has been one of her main objectives.
She has also demonstrated a talent, even greater than Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s [the radical left candidate], for surfing the wave of fear that has swept over the working class, which has been hardest hit by the crisis, and to take advantage of an electorate that was seeking a means to voice a resounding protest. It is certain that she aims to build on this success, and regardless of who is returned on 6 May, the final winner will have to take this into account.
François Hollande, who topped the first round poll, was another beneficiary of the popular rejection of Sarkozy, and a trend for tactical voting, which diverted support from the Front de gauche as well as François Bayrou [the centrist candidate]. However, it was by no means a runaway victory. The left has been reinforced by Sunday’s score, but is still not assured of victory on 6 May.
As Nicolas Sarkozy remarked on Sunday night, another campaign is set to begin on Monday. In the run-up to the second round, the two contestants will attempt to win over protest voters and in particular the significant number that gave their backing to the discourse espoused by Marine Le Pen. The best method of accomplishing this goal is, of course, not to appropriate Le Pen’s ideas, but to respond to the real fears and real anger expressed by her supporters.
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Translated from the French by Mark McGovern