by Marie Dupont
The campaign for the 1st round of the presidential elections in France were marked by an unusually high level of volatility and instability as regards voting intentions. Polls showed trends which kept crossing and recrossing each other between Sarkozy and Hollande, as well as ‘third’ candidates. They also showed a high percentage of people not knowing how they would vote several days before the elections. Also 25% of peopled changed their minds on who to vote during the course of the campaign. Polls also indicated a high a level of expected abstention (30%) but in the end this was 20%.
The reason for such unpredictability is clear. The rejection of Sarkozy after five years of his attacks on the welfare state and his help to the richest, all within the context of the international economic crisis, is at a very high level in France. But nevertheless there was one theme which most of the candidates did not discuss: the economy. This was particularly true after Socialist Party candidate Hollande’s statement to the City of London that he was ‘not dangerous’ – i.e. that he was not going to question the austerity agenda. The issue of the economic crisis, and solutions to it, was blocked from becoming the main topic on the agenda of the campaign by Sarkozy and Hollande.
This meant the campaign was about asking people to vote without talking about what concerned them most, i.e. the crisis and the austerity measures. Sarkozy focussed on ‘social values’ for a ‘France Forte’ (a ‘Strong France’). For example, at the beginning of the campaign he proposed two referenda: one on the unemployed and one on immigrants, indicating implicitly they were to blame for the economic chaos. In so doing, he once again played the game of the ultra-right National Front, as he has been consistently doing since 2007.
The verdict of the ballot on Sarkozy was very harsh. He lost 1.8 million voters compared to the last election. As was predictable a lot of these votes went to the National Front (NF). When Sarkozy came to power in 2007 his slogan was ‘work more in order to earn more’. At that time he succeeded in uniting around himself the main part of the right wing vote, including the far right. But deep discontent regarding Sarkozy’s policy, which turned out in practice to be ‘work more and earn less’, plus the closure of many social services, especially in the countryside where the NF made more gains this time, rising unemployment, and the progress of racialist nationalist islamophobic ideas which Sarkozy himself promoted, aided the far right vote to regain the level it had been previously. Consequently a comparison of the progress of the National Front should really be made with the presidential election of 2002 rather than simply 2007. In 2002 there were two far right candidates: Jean Marie Le Pen and Bruno Mégret. Mégret was an NF dissident, wanting to ‘de-demonise’ the NF in order to go to power (which was never on the NF’s old leader Jean Marie Le Pen’s agenda). Mégret’s is in practice the line now followed by Marine Le Pen, the NF’s new leader. The total of Mégret and Le Pen’s votes in 2002 was 19% compared to 17.9% for Marine Le Pen this year. But the result confirms the strong vote and social implantation of the far right in France and the dangers represented by its new line.
The Socialist Party, with its candidate François Hollande, won 770,000 more votes than its candidate Ségolène Royal in 2007. But the total sum of left votes increased from 13.3 million to 15.7 million because of the dynamic created by the Front de Gauche (Left Front) campaign.
Indeed, the big new event in the campaign was Jean Luc Mélenchon of Le Front de Gauche. Starting in January at around 6% in the polls, at one point his standing reached 17%. His success was due to his clear rejection of austerity, and his confrontation, the only one within the whole political spectrum, of the National Front’s racism and Islamophobia.
The meetings of the Front de Gauche were spectacular, attracting tens of thousands and culminating in the big march to take back ‘La Bastille’ on March 18th when 120,000 demonstrators turned up. The programme of the Front de Gauche, put forward brilliantly by Mélenchon, pulled the whole left onto its terrain and imposed on the SP a slight shift to the left in its rhetoric. The presence of the Left Front is creating a dynamic towards more left wing alternatives to austerity and to capitulation to Sarkozy’s agenda. According to polls, 30% of the Socialist Party’s voters considered voting for Mélenchon but at the last moment changed their mind because of fear of a victory of Sarkozy or of the situation in 2002 when Jean Marie Le Pen succeeded in entering the second round of voting. In the end the Left Front got 11% of the votes (four million) – three million more than in the 2009 European elections (6.5%) when it was launched. In every county the Left Front got above 7%, and received more than 20% in 20 of them. Several local examples show that a good score for the Left Front coincided with regression for Sarkozy or the NF. It is an enormous breakthough, showing that unity of the radical left around a programme of no compromise with austerity and the fascist agenda is the only way forward in a Europe in which the capitalist class aims at making the population pay for the crisis.
Despite the fact that the right parties have a majority, when all their scores are added in the first round (23.3 million votes against 15.7 million for the Left), polls predict a victory of François Hollande at the second round. Marine Le Pen’s first target is Sarkozy. A big part of her voters will not vote for him. Moreover it is yet unclear how centrist currents inside Sarkozy’s party the UMP and outside (Bayrou’s party, le Modem, which got 9%) will vote. Some of le Modem’s leaders have already declared they will vote for Hollande in the second round. The centrists in the UMP are deeply dissatisfied with the far right turn of the party but until now they have always rallied to Sarkozy in the end.