With a beleaguered incumbent, a rejuvenated Socialist Party and a worrying yet unpredictable threat posed by the far right, France is set for its most intriguing presidential election in recent history with less than six months to go until polling day.
Whilst President Nicolas Sarkozy is almost certain to confirm his place as the centre-right UMP candidate on April’s ballot – alongside François Hollande of the Socialist Party and Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National – the verdict of the French electorate will be intriguing on both a national and European level, as France continues to find itself immersed in the ongoing Eurozone debt crisis.
Deeply unpopular and routinely lambasted for his extravagant lifestyle, the outlook is bleak for the man they call ‘Sarkule’ (a pejorative nickname coined in response to his regressive policies). A recent poll suggested that 68% of voters would not like to see him re-elected, despite the considerable international approval the President amassed over his handling of the conflict in Libya. Even the birth of new daughter, Giulia, seems unlikely to soften the hearts of the disillusioned French public, who have become increasingly hostile towards their notoriously brash leader.
Sarkozy’s apparent failures have revived a Socialist Party which has been electorally dormant since Hollande’s namesake, François Mitterand, retired from the presidency in 1995. This time around, more than 2.8 million voters participated in the party’s first ever presidential primaries, which saw the moderate Hollande emerge victorious over Martine Aubry. Many have suggested that the pioneering primary season has brushed off the Socialists’ dated image, and their position at the forefront of media coverage over recent months has gifted the party the exposure they so greatly desired. Sitting firmly on the centre-left of French politics, Hollande has seemingly positioned himself towards the centre ground in an attempt to sway disillusioned UMP voters. However, it is his concerted effort to present himself as an ‘everyman’ which is currently proving his most potent weapon in a country growing tired of the current leader’s ‘celebrity presidency’.
Just as there is a Sunday in every week, there seems to be a Le Pen involved in every French election – and this year is no different as Marine Le Pen attempts once more to detoxify the Front National brand crafted over the decades by her father, Jean Marie. Fighting on the all-too-familiar dual platform of immigration and Euroscepticism, Le Pen is convinced that she can better the party’s shock second place of 2002. Certainly, there is some sympathy for her point of view, but despite her evident popularity in certain regions, it remains doubtful whether she can gain widespread support for her radical policy programme.
UMP optimists keen to play up Sarkozy’s chances of turning things around will of course point to the dire situation that Jacques Chirac found himself in six months before the 1995 election – one which he went on to win comfortably. Sarkozy’s natural charm and dogged campaigning will most likely see an election result far closer than is currently being predicted, but with Monsieur Hollande enjoying a 64-36 advantage over Mr Sarkozy in an October run-off poll it appears that the French electorate are unconvinced by accusations from the UMP camp that Hollande is too inexperienced to deal with the current economic turmoil.
Should Hollande lead the Socialists to victory in France, it will perhaps mark a change in attitudes towards the social democratic and socialist parties on the continent who were punished so heavily by European voters in the wake of the financial crisis. Whilst Gordon Brown’s Labour government was defeated by the Conservatives in this country, Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero announced he would not stand again at the next election amidst plummeting poll ratings. In Portugal, Jose Socrates was forced to resign as Prime Minister after a vote of no confidence in June.
With many deeming the 2012 election more a judgement on President Sarkozy than a battle between ideologies, the suggestion of a resurgence of social democracy in Europe may yet prove to be premature. In any case, the situation is becoming desperate for ‘l’Omniprésident’, regardless of the size of his well documented platforms.