Sarkozy v. Hollande
France’s polling-day blues Whichever candidate emerges triumphant in the French presidential elections, which begin next weekend, there are fears that hard times lie ahead. Pessimism about the economy and disillusionment with the political class is fuelling apathy and support for the far Left
Presidential elections in France in 2007 saw a passionate duel between Nicolas Sarkozy and the Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal, over their contrasting visions for the renewal of society. But the atmosphere in 2012 is very different. Polls suggest that as many as 30 per cent of voters, a record in the fifth republic created by Charles de Gaulle, may abstain from voting. And when the Socialist candidate, François Hollande, claims that it is “time for change”, the change is more a question of style: Hollande is promising to be “a normal president” – compared to the hyperactive “omnipresident” as the international press has dubbed Sarkozy.
For voters who go to the polls for the first round of voting next Sunday, the economy is the overriding concern. Their priorities are unemployment, inflation, poverty, inequality and the need to reduce borrowing and bring down France’s deficit, currently standing at €24.2 billion or 5.2 per cent of GDP. The loss of France’s triple-A rating in January was a huge psychological blow severely denting Sarkozy’s chances of being re-elected.
Hollande’s programme promises higher taxes and populist measures, such as bringing back retirement at 60 for those who have worked for at least 42 years. He is also pledging to hire 60,000 teachers, thus reversing some of the cutbacks in education introduced by the current president. Sarkozy is arguing for the continuation of austerity measures with cuts in public spending. The differences may seem dramatic but both candidates prioritise cutting the deficit: Sarkozy pledges to do so by 2016, Hollande by 2017.
Sarkozy has made a steady recovery from his poor showings in the early opinion polls and is expected to emerge ahead of the Socialist candidate in the first round of voting. But a victory is predicted for Hollande in the second and decisive round on 5 May.
Last month’s terrorist attack in Toulouse, when three Jewish children, a rabbi and three soldiers were killed by a lone gunman, has barely affected the polls.
Indeed, the shootings may even have marked the beginning of stagnation for the Front National candidate Marine Le Pen, whose support appears stalled at 15 per cent, with many commentators suggesting that she is losing votes to Sarkozy, who is seen as developing a more effective rhetoric on Islam. He won plaudits, for instance, for his decision last week to refuse entry to four Muslim preachers invited to a conference of the French Union of Islamic Organisations.
But the big surprise of these elections has been the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. His campaign against the financial sector has played well with the electorate while his generous promises to the French at large have earned him the soubriquet “Monsieur 100 billion”. His plan to increase the French minimum wage to €1,400 a month from the current €1,100 has sent his rating on voting intentions rocketing from 3 to 15 per cent in just a few weeks. According to François Miquet-Marty, director of the polling institute Viavoice, Mélenchon’s appeal is proof of the frustration felt by many French voters.
“The fear of losing social status and sliding down the ladder is one of the main features of French society today,” explains MiquetMarty, author of one the most quoted political essays in the elections, Les oubliés de la démocratie (Democracy’s Forgotten Voters). “There is a growing lack of confidence in the political system. Candidates are perceived as professional politicians pursuing personal gain rather than the common interest. The idea that our democracy is suffering from a kind of illness is widespread. Only 35 per cent of the population share the opinion that politicians are concerned about ordinary people.”
It was those first months of Sarkozy’s presidency back in 2007 that largely contributed to this “democratic disenchantment”, as defined by Miquet-Marty, and to the lack of popularity that Sarkozy has experienced in these elections. The so-called “bling-bling” period – when he celebrated his victory at Fouquet’s, the most expensive restaurant on the Champs-Elysées, and spent his holidays on a luxury yacht belonging to one of his millionaire friends – opened a divide between the new president and the majority of the French population. The forced resignation of ministers for spending thousands of euros of public money on cigars and private jets further fuelled this resentment.
So far, the President’s efforts to correct this image have failed to close the polling gap, though there are signs that it may be narrowing. Recently, the relationship between the former government minister and fundraising officer of Sarkozy’s UMP party, Eric Woerth, and the rich l ’Oréal widow, Liliane Bettencourt, have revived suspicions about the links between Sarkozy and the country’s moneyed elite. Hollande is building his campaign on this resentment, promising that one of his first measures will be to cut his own and his ministers’ salaries by 30 per cent. His emphasis on social and fiscal justice – taxing the highest incomes by up to 75 per cent – also corresponds to the expectations of a large part of the population.
The majority of Catholic voters, however, do not appear to be deserting Sarkozy, though their support for him has slipped since 2007. Sixty-two per cent of French Catholics, and 70 per cent of active churchgoers, intend to vote for him in the second round, according
4 | THE TABLET | 14 April 2012