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 to a recent poll by the Institut français d’opinion publique. In the last election, 75 per cent of practising Catholics voted for Sarkozy.
Catholics have been disappointed by the “bling-bling” episodes, despite the President’s declarations on the importance of France’s Christian roots following his meeting with Pope Benedict in Rome in December 2007. Nor has his call for secularism to exist alongside – and in cooperation with – Christianity erased his occasional flashes of arrogance, as symbolised by the famous incident when he told a citizen who refused to shake his hand to “Get lost, you bloody idiot.”
“Although the last five years have been, by and large, favourable to Catholics, there is a sense of exasperation,” says François de Lacoste, vice president of the Catholic think tank Association pour la Fondation de Service Politique.
Nonetheless, François Hollande does not seem to appeal to the majority of Catholic voters. They may be concerned about his support for gay marriage and euthanasia: the French bishops in their election advice have told voters to be particularly vigilant on issues linked to family, the respect for life and the defence of the poor. Same-sex marriage and adoption would be among the first measures to be taken, according to the road map for Hollande’s first year in office, as well as legislation favouring euthanasia. But these social and moral issues are not making headlines in the campaign. Everything hinges on the economy and the contrasting choices offered by Sarkozy and Hollande.
Both Hollande and the far-left candidate, Mélanchon, having designated the financial elite as their enemy, together with Eva Joly, who represents the green party, EELV; and the small Trotskyist party, led by Nathalie Arthaud, appear to command close to 50 per cent of the vote. On the opposite wing, the ideological coherence is less obvious. Only the centre candidate, François Bayrou, shares a similar position on the economy to Sarkozy. But his virulent attacks against the President and a lack of political flair have marginalised the only candidate who openly defines himself as a Catholic. As for Marine Le Pen, she has sown confusion by switching her party’s economic doctrine from ultra liberal to defending the French welfare system. Nor is she a natural ally for Sarkozy, whose strategy has been to try to win her supporters to his side. Whoever is elected, French voters are convinced that hard times and economic sacrifices lie ahead. “For the first time under this constitution, voters believe that the winner will make no difference, be they on the right or the left,” says François Miquet-Marty. “The lack of values in the campaign, not only in moral terms but also in terms of societal choices, contributes to the illness of our democracy. There is a feeling that the political debate is drying out.”
■ Birthe Pedersen is the French correspondent of the Danish Christian daily Kristeligt Dagblad.
‘A sensible US policy would lift the embargo while the Castros are still alive’
Nowhere can compete with Cuba for sheer oddity: a Communist state still surviving a generation after the creed’s global demise; a republic that is, in reality, an absolute monarchy. When the Pope visited Havana last month, he faced a delicate diplomatic challenge. Should he meet the Castro brothers, Raúl and Fidel (the former now runs the country, the latter is supposed to be in retirement), despite the fact that a long list of dissidents languish in jail? Or would it be better to shun them and risk losing any chance to influence the pair?
In the event, Benedict chose to meet both men and raise the plight of political prisoners. He did not, however, meet any dissenters himself, officially because his schedule did not allow the time, but in reality because this would have caused a crisis in the Vatican’s relations with the Castro clan.
And so the Pope took the pragmatic course, being photographed with the old revolutionaries, raising the delicate subject of human rights in their presence but declining any contact with the regime’s opponents. Whether he brought specific cases to the attention of the Castros, or sought the release of named individuals, is not known.
Benedict’s actions are made more defensible by the specific situation in Cuba. Fidel Castro, now 85, chose to relinquish the presidency in 2008 after 49 years of dominance since the revolution that overthrew the Batista dictatorship in 1959. In true monarchical fashion, Fidel handed over to his younger brother, Raúl – a mere stripling of 80 – who had previously served as his loyal deputy.
Two predictions can be ventured about Cuba’s future. For as long as one of the Castros remains upon this earth, no fundamental reform will be allowed. They might permit economic policy to be liberalised at the margins in order to prevent total stagnation, but real political reform is out of the question.
But mortality will eventually sweep away the brothers, who run Cuba like a (socialist) family business. When that happens, the inherent weakness of a system based on a personality cult will be exposed. If the charismatic figure at the centre of the structure disappears, things quickly fall to bits. When Cuba is free of the Castros, it will soon become a normal Caribbean island, awash with Western tourists and US investment.
A sensible American policy would accelerate this moment by lifting the embargo on Cuba while the Castros are still alive. At best, the resulting flow of money and visitors would force a measure of economic reform on the brothers; at worst, it might cause them to take fright and damage their own popularity by blocking commercial ties with the US. But the question is academic: the presence of vehemently anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Florida, a swing state in every presidential election, effectively rules out this option.
In the meantime, the world lives with the reality of the Castros in power and genuine reform an impossibility. That alters the dilemma faced by the Pope over whether to meet the pair.
It only makes sense to freeze out a dictator if he is about to go anyway, or if the act of isolating him might hasten his downfall. If, however, the leader is securely in power, then the least worst option is to meet him in the hope that you might exert some influence over his decisions. This factor would have weighed on the Vatican advisers. The decision they took – to meet the Castros – was probably right. After all, the brothers are shadows of their former selves, and not only because of the ravages of age. Once Cuba was a genuine hub of revolution, sending soldiers as far afield as Angola and Ethiopia to support socialist guerrillas and left-wing leaders, notably the bloodstained Mengistu Haile Mariam who tormented Ethiopia for 17 years. As such, Havana was a real irritant to the US and the debate over what to do about Castro surfaced at every election. Today, we can be sure that Cuba is somewhere near the bottom of the list of President Obama’s foreign policy priorities.
Looking at the haggard, drawn faces of Fidel and Raúl, you sense that they know that their era is ending in quiet ignominy. They are not harmless to the dissidents who they keep in jail, but these two defanged, superannuated revolutionaries are no longer worth fretting over. The next time a Pope visits Cuba, it will probably be a normal country.
■ David Blair is chief foreign correspondent of The Daily Telegraph.
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