Lessons from the French presidential campaign

Nicolas Sarkozy surprisingly came in second in the April 22 vote, a first for an incumbent in France.

A combo photo shows, Francois Hollande (L), Socialist party candidate, and Nicolas Sarkozy, France''s incumbent president and UMP party candidate photographed earlier during the first round 2012 French presidential election April 22, 2012. Early estimations show Socialist challenger Hollande and incumbent Sarkozy are set to contest a French presidential run-off in two weeks. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen (L) and REUTERS/Eric Feferberg/Pool (R) (FRANCE - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)
Francois Hollande, left, won 29 per cent of the vote, while incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy won 27 per cent [REUTERS]

Princeton, NJ – The first round of the French presidential election on April 22 saw the emergence of socialist candidate François Hollande and conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy as the runner ups for the second round of the election. This was not a big surprise, as polls had predicted this outcome for months.

What was more surprising was that Sarkozy came in second, a first for an incumbent in France, and might well be a one-term president. As the final vote approaches on May 6, what lessons can be learned from the campaign and the results?

First, the very high electoral turnout of 80 per cent suggests that the French really wanted to send a message through the ballots and still believe in the power of democracy. The morose economic climate has not left French citizens apathetic or feeling that they have so lost control over their sovereignty that there is no point in expressing oneself democratically anymore.

Such high participation is not to be taken for granted in an election where neither main candidate was particularly exciting and where the general European context dictates that policies will be made by technocrats and within strict constraints anyway.

The anti-Sarkozy vote

A second lesson is that it is hard to be an incumbent in today’s economic climate, as all recent elections in Europe have demonstrated. Sarkozy’s 27 per cent of the votes and second-place finish behind Hollande’s 29 per cent was a vote of no-confidence to the president.

To be sure, the anti-Sarkozy vote was not only an anti-incumbent vote. The president’s personal behaviour and demeanour has rubbed the French the wrong way over the past five years, so a vote against Sarkozy was as much a vote against the man as a vote against the function. But personality notwithstanding, it is not easy being an incumbent in the current times of economic crisis in Europe. All around France, from Greece to the Netherlands, incumbents are dethroned. Why should Sarkozy’s fate be different?

Sarkozy could have capitalised on what he had cast in his campaign narrative as foreign policy successes. From Georgia to Libya, from the EU institutional crisis to the Euro crisis, from NATO to the G20, his hyperactive and ubiquitous foreign policy put France back at the centre of the action. Sarkozy took leads and initiatives, some with more efficacy and follow-up than others. After all, if the French care about their stature and role in the world, should not they have rewarded Sarkozy at the polls?

One reason for the disaffection may be that what may have passed for foreign policy successes initially was interpreted differently as time went by – or simply forgotten. Which voter remembers Sarkozy’s handling of the Georgia crisis in 2008?

Sarkozy may have been sitting on cloud nine at the time of the 2011 Libya intervention, but several months later, domestic judgments of the outcome shifted from acquiescence and pride in France’s return to the centre of the international action to questioning about whether it was all worth it, and whether the change and instability was not ultimately for the worse.

The other reason is that foreign policy does not pay in domestic politics. That is the third essential lesson, and it is far from a novel one. In the end, voters always cast their ballot on economic and social issues, not foreign policy ones.

The real lesson

But in the end, the real lesson of this election is that the real cleavage that matters in French politics today is an economic cleavage – not between left and right, not between haves and have-nots, but between openness and closure. On one hand, Sarkozy, Hollande and the centrist candidate François Bayrou all believe that France is a country that benefits from openness and globalisation, even if these come at a price, and that is destined to pursue the adventure of European integration. 

On the other hand, Marine Le Pen’s National Front, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Left Front, and a cacophony of small candidates from the far left and from the sovereignist right represent “la France du non”, those voters who turned down the European constitution in 2005 and believe that the key to the future is reasserting sovereignty. The third of voters who expressed support for these candidates feel that they have lost their country and their destiny.  

Seen in this light, Le Pen’s extraordinary score of 18 per cent can be explained more easily. This is not to exculpate the French from racism. To be sure, Marine Le Pen leads a party united by a nationalistic, anti-immigrant stance. The fear and scapegoating of the “other”, especially if that other has North-African origins or is Muslim, runs deep among the fraction of the electorate she represents. The massacre in Toulouse and Montauban one month ago, where a French-born radical Islamist of Algerian origin savagely murdered soldiers and Jewish children, certainly served as a focal point for anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim anxieties and helped Le Pen’s electoral results.

But the call to halt immigration and giving France back to the French is only one part of her platform. Even more than her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who had already tried to broaden the National Front’s platform with success in the 2002 election, Marine focused her campaign on how to subtract France from outside pressures and constraints. She railed as much against Europe, ultra-liberalism, and global markets than she did against immigrants.

This is probably the broader, most applicable lesson for other countries who are watching the French election closely. The world is experiencing momentous political and economic shifts, and publics in Western democracies are going through an existential crisis. Whether they want to be “in” or “out” of the global flows of goods, people, and ideas is now what separates them from one another. The French, no stranger to existentialism, are embracing this new cleavage, as we will undoubtedly witness in the June legislative elections.

Sophie Meunier is a Research Scholar in Public and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University and co-director of the European Union Program at Princeton. She is the author of Trading Voices: The European Union in International Commercial Negotiations (2005) and The French Challenge: Adapting to Globalisation (2001).