Opinions - 10.11.2011 - 00:00 

Running for the Elysée

Presidential election campaigns in France are peppered with a hefty dose of promises. This time around, the dismal state of public finances is bound to impose moderation. A comment by Professor Christoph Frei.


11 November 2011. Just a few days after President Nicolas Sarkozy warned that the wider European context had imposed a “new reality”, his prime minister announced another series of austerity cuts meant to preserve the country’s top-level credit rating. The original budget plan was thus modified before it even went to parliament.

It includes a conspicuous freeze on the salaries of all members of government as well as the president, until the country achieves a balanced budget. Balanced budget? “Vaste programme”, Charles de Gaulle would have said. 1974 was the last time the French government managed to make ends meet.

Though Mr. Sarkozy has yet to declare his candidacy, the stage is set. Against the background of continued “economic crisis” and ever more anxiety about a dismantling of the État-providence, familiar elements are in place for another head-on collision between the left and the right. Apart from aspirants with lesser prospects (some of whom might collect crucial votes in the first voting round in April) two major candidates stand a reasonable chance to menace the incumbent.

Mr. Hollande a "Monsieur Normal"

On the left side of the political spectrum, François Hollande was nominated by a wide enough margin to give him legitimacy beyond his Socialist Party. Close to 3 million voters turned out for the run-off. The two-stage primaries - a first in France - not only afforded the Socialist Party extended media coverage, but also gave it an unusual fresh and modern look.

For some time, Mr. Hollande has cultivated his image as a "Monsieur Normal". He projects himself as a decent chap who knows how to listen to the woes of his fellow citoyens, and appearing perfectly at ease petting cows at the popular fair. His insistence on a “normal” presidency is a deliberate contrast to the hyperactive Président and his notoriously extravagant taste.

However, whether “being normal” will turn out to be an asset remains to be seen.

Mr. Hollande has never held executive office at the national level, and when the Parti Socialiste last won a presidential election, Ronald Reagan governed the United States and Maggie Thatcher dwelled in Number 10 Downing Street.

On the far right side, the setup is (literally) familiar. In January 2011, Marine Le Pen succeeded her father Jean-Marie as president of the Front National. In May, her presidential bid was validated by the party’s executive committee—unanimously, bien sûr.

The Front National still draws much of its political clout from popular disenchantment with the politics and culture of the country’s technocratic elite. Moreover, the party keeps feeding off fears among French employees of being pushed aside by a steady influx of immigrants or being replaced by cheap labour from eastern states of the European Union, India and China.

What to expect?

In spite of a successful war in Libya, Mr. Sarkozy’s poll numbers remain the worst of any president of the Fifth Republic ahead of a re-election bid. Should he run, he will be in for a truly delicate uphill battle. In the process, “crisis management” is bound to remain his field of predilection and his last best hope.

Those who, consciously or unconsciously, see experience and tenacity in the man, may end up considering him the most credible leader on offer. In turn, Marine Le Pen and François Hollande will try their best to look presidential, display a modicum of competence and, more importantly, stature. With less than six months to go, they can only do so much towards amending their respective political record. Yet, given the dire mood of many voters, not having much of a record may well do the trick.

Christoph Frei is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of St.Gallen.

Picture: Photocase / Blaubart

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