French Elections Reveal Deeper Currents of Political Life

Elections in France both for President and for Parliament are two-round affairs. In the first round of the election for President held on April 22, there were 10 candidates; in the second round there will be only the top two, a duel between the Socialist Party’s Francois Hollande and the current President Nicolas Sarkozy. In this article, I will look at the trend of ideas and their social base expressed by the 10 candidates.  In an article after the May 6 second round, I will analyse Hollande and Sarkozy and see what the future may hold.

The idea of “Right” and “Left” in politics was born in France and expressed in the seating pattern in Parliament. The division of political parties on Right/Left lines has continued, now with an ill-defined center and what are generally called “Far Right” and “Far Left” candidates. To keep things simple, I will follow this tradition but then turn to the more difficult analysis of currents of ideas highlighted by the candidates but which do not necessarily follow Right/Left lines.

On the “Far Left” there were three parties with candidates. Nathalie Arthaud –Workers’ Stuggle – who received 0.6 percent of the votes cast, and Philippe Poutou of the New Anticapitalist Party with 1.2 percent. Both are related to Trotskyite currents. The differences between the two seem slight. Why there were two candidates is not clear, being probably related to power struggles of factions, but rather difficult for outsiders to make out. Jean-Luc Mélenchon with 11.1 percent represented the Left Front — a new political party, its core being the Communist Party which used to run as a party in its own right. However, the Communist Party had dropped to 2 to 3 percent in the most recent elections.  Its leadership thought it best to run as part of a new coalition of Left Socialists with some indirect trade union support. Mélenchon, a member of the French Senate for the Socialist Party, is a good orator and returned to an old style of large out-door meetings with red flags flying.

Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party received the largest number of votes, 28.6 percent and is widely believed to be the next President. Eva Joly of the newly renamed Europe Ecology-Greens with 2.3 percent can also be placed on the Left, although ecology as a theme cuts across party lines.

On the Far Right, there was Marine Le Pen of the National Front with 17.9 percent of the vote. She had been handed the leadership by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the long-time National Front leader. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan of Arise the Republic! with 1.8 percent ran on an anti-European Union platform, a return to the French franc from the Euro, a national-interest ideology but not particularly other Rightist themes. Nicolas Sarkozy, the current President and leader of the Union for a Popular Movement received 27.2 percent and has run an increasingly Rightist campaign hoping to benefit from those who voted for Marine Le Pen.

In the Center was Francois Bayrou of the Democratic Movement with 9.1 percent. He represents basically the Christian Democratic current with support from the Catholic Church and a pro-European Union policy. Polling institute interviews suggest that the voters of Francois Bayrou will split fairly evenly between Hollande and Sarkozy for the second round.

The odd-man out was Jacques Cheminade with 0.3 percent of the votes and a movement called Solidarity and Progress. He is difficult to place on a Left/Right continuum. He is a “follower” or at least inspired by the American Lyndon Larouch and stressed major building projects as a way out of the financial crisis, including creating colonies on the moon. The media kept linking him to some of the stranger ideas of Lyndon Larouch, and he never came across with anything beyond having predicted in his earlier 1995 run for President that there was going to be a financial crash.  As French law requires that each candidate be given equal time in TV and radio news reporting as well as in the official clips (there are only official clips), one saw more of Cheminade than one would have otherwise.

The campaign and the voting results indicate some deeper currents of political life in France though with few surprises.  The strength of anti-European Union sentiments needs to be watched closely.

Foreign policy was largely absent from the debates. There is wide agreement on both Right and Left to pull French troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible without having it look like a retreat. The French Foreign Ministry has been among the most critical at the United Nations of the al-Assad government crackdown in Syria, but there is no pro-Assad sentiment on the Left. The “Arab Spring” was rarely if ever mentioned.  The measures of the European Union and its Central Bank to help Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy are too complicated for a campaign debate. “Let us not have Greece happen here” was the cry of both Right and Left.

The campaign debates reflected immediate domestic concerns — the 10 percent unemployment, the fragile condition of manufacturing companies who are moving production to China, India and other lower wage countries, the current reluctance of  banks to loan money to small companies or individuals. This bank policy has hit the housing industry rather hard.  While there is a real shortage of middle class housing, home construction has slowed. Health policy and the debts of the health aspect of the social security system, while not debated in detail, is absorbed into a generalized feeling that things are getting worse and that “politicians” are not doing anything to help.

Although Marine Le Pen has cut down on the anti-Muslim speeches of her father, she does play the immigration card.  Immigration is a not very disguised code word for Muslim immigration just as “security” refers to neighbourhoods with large number of immigrants from North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. The security issues are real and would require sweeping affirmative action which is difficult in a period of budget problems.

Both Sarkozy and Hollande have made economic and taxation proposals, but they are rather technical and for the most part difficult to understand.  The proposals do little to build popular support. Hollande has chosen a popular theme of wanting to put his emphasis on youth and their future. It is an appealing theme — who can be against youth, better schools and training possibilities? As the fear that children will have more problems and a lower standard of living than their parents is widespread, Hollande has found a good campaign theme. Putting youth-friendly structures into place may be more difficult.

Likewise, there is a widespread if not very focused concern with ecology issues, well beyond the 2 percent who voted for Eva Joly.

How these sentiments of mixed fear, anger, disappointment and lack of a clear picture of how the European economy works will play out on May 6 is difficult to predict.  Polls give Hollande as the winner but not by enough percentage points to be beyond the margin of error. The legislative elections for Parliament will be held in June — again a test of local issues, general attitudes and reactions to current economic conditions.

Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.