The first round of the two-part process used in France to choose a president ended yesterday with Nicholas Sarkozy of the center-right UMP winning 31 percent of the vote — some five points ahead of the runner-up Ségolène Royal, the Socialist-party candidate. The two will meet again in a final-round election on May 6.
This was not exactly a surprising result. For months, the European media has been calling yesterday’s election “the most unpredictable in decades.” In fact, the BBC used the phrase just yesterday evening. Not surprisingly, the press is five years late with their analysis. In fact, the final result, reported here in a round-up by Le Figaro, reflects Ipsos poll numbers from early March almost exactly. What the media really meant was that after 2002 — when the press in France and elsewhere were blindsided by what to them was the unimaginable collapse of the Socialist party — they didn’t want to go out on a limb and predict that the Socialists might actually be able to pull off a second-place finish.
The thing that was actually unpredictable was the miraculous turnout: an incredible 85 percent. People waited in line for as long as an hour in Paris and the larger cities, enjoying the most beautiful day so far this year in most of France. In the part of the country where I live, you can stand on the hill behind my village and count four steeples — the ring of Lys-side villages connected by narrow lanes made treacherous by towering hedgerows. All day yesterday, they were filled with people walking into their village to vote. There were almost no cars; kids, parents with strollers, even the elderly went out on their walkers and canes into the sunshine. It was stirring, actually. The whole country looked like it had been seized with a religious fervor, and I suppose it had, in the secular sense. The French voted in overwhelming numbers perhaps because they realize the enormity of the mess in France created by 50 years of élitist rule, Right and Left. Maybe they were finally tired of watching every attempt at change become subject to veto by crowds in the streets, almost always mobilized by students and trade unions, the only place left-wing status-quo militancy survives in this country.
The contest between Royal and Sarkozy will be extremely uninteresting if you watch only the candidates. The third-place finisher was François Bayrou, the candidate of the UDF, normally allied with the UMP. His 18.5 percent is presumably up for grabs, so both candidates will pitch their woo right down the middle. That will make it nearly impossible for either of them to articulate a clear vision that demonstrates an ability to deliver the thing that drove all these nice people out into their country lanes: A need for real change.
Sarkozy, who is to the hugely unpopular Jacques Chirac what John McCain is to the equally unpopular George W. Bush, will gain the support of the 12 percent or so who voted for candidates on the right wing of the spectrum. Happily, Jean-Marie LePen looks like he’s finally ready to exit French politics stage right. His National Front — a populist dustbin of xenophobes, racists, and anti-Semites — will no doubt always be around, long after the final round. But he lost ground in this election, as Le Monde reports, and so yesterday’s lovely day may mark the end of the NF’s influence, and by the next présidentielle, they may have as much impact as Gérard Schivardi and his ultraleft Workers party, with its 140,000 diehards. More thoughtful right-wing candidates, such as Philippe de Villiers and his MPF, will probably gain in influence over the next five years, no matter who wins the final round this year.
While none of the right-wing leaders will endorse Sarkozy, they probably don’t have to; few of their supporters would vote for Royal anyway. Sarko’s challenge will be to give them a reason to vote for him. This difficult task has been made easier by the leaders of the cluster of Trotskyite, Marxist, and Green parties off in the weeds on the Left. All of them have already followed the lead of perennial far-Left candidate Arlette Laguiller, whose statement is carried on TV-5’s website, and urged their partisans to support Royal. Together, the lunatic Left represents another dozen or so percentage points. That leaves Royal in deficit. So to win next month, Ségo needs to gain the support for far more Bayrou “centrists” than Sarko does.
That’s where the necessary support of the Left may prove problematic. By far the most popular of the far-Left candidates is Olivier Besancenot, a 33-year-old postman and leader of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist League. Olivier did most of his campaigning in jeans and a T-shirt and in the process won the hoodie vote — just over 4 percent of the total. In the past few hours, he’s been telling reporters, including one from Belgium’s RTBF, that in the forthcoming campaign, the Left will fight Sarkozy “in the polls and in the streets.”
That’s not good news for Ségo. Holding onto the Left is vital for Royal; if the Greens and Trotskyists and Marxists and Maoists all stay home on May 6, she’s a goner. So how to encourage a cohort that already is suspicious of her dedication to the goals of international socialism while still trying to win the support of the Bayrou middle now becomes a huge problem for the Royal campaign. She starts the final-round campaign eight points behind Sarkozy, according to Ipsos, and she’s not helped by the trite notions she’s come up with so far. For example, her idea about how to reduce France’s 8.5 percent unemployment rate: Create 500,000 new civil-service jobs. These will be most entry level jobs for kids, but in a bureaucracy like France’s all things remain, even as they float. More government is not really what the French seem to want at the moment.
The conventional wisdom — and of course nobody reflects that better than the International Herald Tribune — is that in the next few weeks Sarkozy, who is seen as capable of delivering real change to France, will have to soften his views, stress tranquility, and aim more for the nervous Bayrou crowd. No doubt he will do all of this — even though ultimately that will make his job after May 6 considerably more difficult: Without a strong, clear mandate to roll-back the 35-hour week and all the rest of the social burdens French taxpayers now support, he’s going to find himself spending years facing down the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communists and the rest of the rue-filling little-party legionnaires most French voters admire less and less with each passing election.
So if she really wants those Bayrou voters vital to her success, maybe Royal is the one who must do the hard-sell on tranquility. So far, Royal has run a boilerplate center-left campaign, squishy and vague and filled with frequent references to the wishes of her online constituency huddling hopefully at Désirs d’Avenir, where the curious can read her less-than-inspiring platform’s “seven pillars” — fight against violence tooth-and-nail, education is good, etc. And nobody, least of all the IHT, would dare claim she doesn’t stand up for the things she really believes in: “As schools minister, she made the morning-after contraceptive pill available free to female students but she also condemned g-strings emerging above girls’ waistbands.” So she does know how to speak truth to power.
She’s already started playing the anti-Bush, anti-American card so popular with thoughtless French candidates. But she’ll have to do better than that to keep the Trotskyist Revolutionaries interested enough to actually show up to vote. And the harder she works to keep their support, the more she’ll convince the French Right to show up to vote against her. That’s the problem with fighting for the so-called “middle”: It only increases the influence of those who correctly are on the margins. It’s a perilous situation for the Socialists: Ségo doesn’t have a supporter to spare — and here she’s already squandered the g-string vote.