An Electoral Pas de Deux? The First Round of the French Elections Considered

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    Apr 20, 2012

    On April 22, the first round of French elections will be held. This election will be the first in a series of important European elections over the next three weeks: the May 6 French runoff election (assuming no candidate wins an absolute majority on April 22), the May 6 Greek elections, and two German state elections (Schleswig-Holstein on May 6 and North Rhine-Westphalia on May 13). We are about to have a front-row seat to watch how European democracies will or potentially will not address deepening debt, painful austerity, and the political ramifications of Germany’s economic dominance of Europe.

    For France, these elections come at a crucial moment. Entering its third year, the eurozone crisis has fully exposed France’s own difficult struggle to keep its budget under control, to shore up its fragile banks, and to spur urgently needed economic growth. The figures speak to the urgency of the challenge: after losing its triple AAA rating in January, France’s national debt is 90 percent of GDP, well above Germany’s 78 percent, and its public spending is among Europe’s highest at 56 percent. Unemployment is nearing 10 percent, youth unemployment is at a record 22 percent, and the trade deficit is ballooning. 

    Enter the roster of French candidates that will tackle this challenge. Among a far-flung field of ten candidates, the first round comes down to four: François Hollande from the French Socialist Party (PS), incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy from the center-right coalition UMP, Marine Le Pen from the far-right Front National (FN), and Jean-Luc Mélenchon from the Left Front (SG). If polling is accurate, Sarkozy and Hollande are projected to win between 26 and 29 percent of the vote each and advance to the second round.

    If victorious, Hollande has pledged to renegotiate the hard-fought EU fiscal compact treaty—the German approach to enforce debt and deficit discipline on wayward eurozone members—and has proposed a tax rate of 75 percent for those with an income of 1 million euros or higher. He wants to increase France’s minimum wage by €1,700 per month, increase the number of teachers by 60,000, and impose financial penalties on the energy and financial sectors.

    As a candidate in 2007, Sarkozy pledged to break from France’s failed economic policies of the past—the so-called rupture—and institute structural and economic reforms. Although attempts were made over the past five years, such as increasing the retirement age to 62, they were insufficient to address the increasingly difficult task at hand. If a rupture has occurred, it has been with Sarkozy’s own previous electoral promises. However, in his most recent 32-point plan (not to be confused with Hollande’s 60-point plan), Sarkozy has put forth some ideas related to labor reform as well as increasing taxes, particularly promoting his financial transaction tax. Neither of the two candidates has presented bold plans to restore France’s competitiveness and bolster its faltering economy, although they have advanced plans to spend more (Hollande) and to tax more (Hollande and Sarkozy).

    The two most interesting elements of this first round will be the extent of voter turnout and how well the leaders of the extreme parties, Le Pen and Mélenchon, will fare. Both elements are linked. It is feared that turnout may be quiet low as growing voter frustration of the choice between mainstream parties and growing apathy keep French voters home. Low turnout can produce surprising results, particularly for traditionally marginal parties whose supporters do feel passionate that something must be done to radically change the country’s direction. Both are running at about even in the polls (Marine Le Pen has 16 to 18 percent; Jean-Luc Mélenchon has between 14 and 15 percent). Mélenchon, the most interesting surprise of this campaign, has been experiencing a surge in popularity from 6.5 percent in January.

    Young French voters have been attracted to both Le Pen and Mélenchon’s anti-global and anti-European messaging; as they have effectively tapped into growing popular sentiment that for France globalization has been “disastrous.”

    Finally, as we near the May 6 second round, much discussion will ensue regarding the implication of forming a new Franco-German economic couple that must “lead” Europe out of its economic doldrums should the “Merkozy” (German chancellor Merkel + Sarkozy = Merkozy) tandem come to an end. Chancellor Merkel refused to meet with François Hollande and, at one point, offered to campaign for President Sarkozy. This offer was rejected as Hollande gained political advantage by criticizing Sarkozy’s efforts to support the fiscal pact and follow Berlin’s economic prescriptions.

    If there are doubts about the ultimate outcome on May 6, it should not be about the health of the Franco-German relationship, a relationship characterized by intense cooperation and coordination at every level of government for the past 50 years. Despite their similar political leanings, one should not forget that President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel were two leaders who were completely opposite in style and approach and had a very uneasy personal as well as policy relationship that they tentatively overcame. Yet this agreement did not erase traditional French positions on its economic approach or on the engagement of European institutions; it reflects that the Franco-German relationship is no longer a tandem bicycle but a German unicycle. Although on a personal level Hollande, the low-key and affable “technician” who has never held a ministerial position, should get along fairly well with the methodological and unostentatious “tactician” Merkel, Hollande will not be able to make meaningful changes either to the fiscal pact or significantly increase French debt; he will be too greatly punished by his fellow European leaders and “the world of finance” that he wishes to battle.

    If there is increasing doubt about the outcome of the elections, it should be focused on the future health and prosperity of the French economy before additional sovereign and banking downgrades occur. If Hollande wins, it will have been 24 years since a socialist returned to the Elysée Palace; a lot has changed in France, in Europe, and globally. This is the hard reality that Mr. Hollande may discover on May 7.

    Heather A. Conley is a senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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