22/04/2007 - D-7 - 1st round
On 22nd April next 44.5 million French are being called to vote and to appoint the successor to the President of the Republic, Jacques Chirac (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, UMP), as Head of State. Although the UMP candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, former Interior and Urban Development Minister, is in the lead with regard to voting intentions in the polls this presidential election is still undecided, to date four candidates – Nicolas Sarkozy, Ségolène Royal, (Socialist Party, PS), François Bayrou (Union pour la Démocratie française UDF) and Jean-Marie Le Pen (Front National, FN) – can suppose they will feature as part of the leading duo in the first round and therefore go through to the second round that will take place on 6th May next .
There has been a record number of registrations on the electoral rolls in this presidential election. The highest number was recorded in the Parisian suburbs (+7,90% in the Hauts-de-Seine, stronghold of Nicolas Sarkozy, + 8,51% in Seine-Saint-Denis, + 6,76% in Val d'Oise in just one year covering 2006). In these 'départements' many associations have mobilised to encourage the population, notably the youngest, to register. The number of French living abroad recorded on the electoral rolls has particularly increased rising from 385,537 in 2002 (and 452,383 in 2005) to 821,600 in 2007. In all there are nearly 3.4 million additional voters than in 2002 representing an increase of 7.4%, the highest percentage since 1981.
Another detail that bears witness to French interest in this presidential election is the exceptional audience recorded by political programmes. Hence Ségolène Royal rallied 8.7 million viewers on 19th February in the programme J'ai une question à vous poser on TF1 and 8.3 million on 13th March when she appeared on the News at 20:00 on the same channel. Nicolas Sarkozy rallied 8 million on 5th February in the programme J'ai une question à vous poser and 8.2 million when he came into the TF1 studio for the News at 20:00 on 14th March last.
Everyone knows that the French like nothing less than scenarios written ahead of time making them believe that their vote is in fact of little importance and that things are being decided for them and without them. In 2002 they demonstrated this when they put Jean-Marie Le Pen second whilst for months all the pollsters had been testing out hypotheses in which Jacques Chirac would face Lionel Jospin (PS). This year former Education Minister (1993-1997), François Bayrou has succeeded against all expectations in achieving a real breakthrough in the polls rising from 9% in voting intentions mid-January (Sofres poll 17th-18th January 2007) with over 23% at the beginning of March (Sofres poll, 7th-8th March 2007). In a country where six out of ten voters say they do not trust either the left or the right the UDF candidate has adequate room to manoeuvre and win through. Over the last few weeks the rise of the UDF candidate now seems to have stabilised, with François Bayrou recording a decline in many polls.
Nicolas Sarkozy, however has experienced the opposite. Whilst for months he lay ahead of all competitors in the first round, in the last month the UMP candidate has witnessed a decline in the gap separating him from his main rival, Ségolène Royal. A poll by Louis Harris on 23rd and 24th March last declared the same two candidates as equal (27% of votes). It was this moment that the UMP candidate chose to provide his campaign with a swing to the right, aware that he was on the decline in the polls and convinced that the presidential election would not really be decided on in the centre and that it would depend mainly on a popular electorate. Nicolas Sarkozy launched into battle again notably promoting the creation of a Ministry for Immigration and National Identity. The 'rapprochement' of both terms stirred a number of disapproving protests within the political community including amongst his own supporters. "It is more than carelessness (...) I really did not like this extremely ambiguous formula. I would have preferred a Ministry of Immigration and Integration," said Simone Veil, former Health Minister (1974-1979 and 1993-1995), former President of the European Parliament (1979-1982) and former member of the Constitutional Council (1998-2007). Nicolas Sarkozy did however stand by what he said, and it is approved by most of the French according to the polls.
The Socialist Party candidate, Ségolène Royal, chose not to let her main adversary dominate this point and after having qualified the meaning inherent in the expression employed by the former Interior Minister as 'vile' i.e. the analogy made between immigration and the threat to the French identity she insisted on highlighting the Left's commitment to the nation via the use of Republican symbols such as the Marseillaise, the French national anthem and the tri-coloured flag. However the trend to the right in the campaign has made François Bayrou's position particularly uncomfortable; the UDF candidate has now taken a lower profile in a debate which no longer brings right against left but which focuses on themes that are traditionally tainted by the extreme right.
Ségolène Royal, who has not escaped aggression, including from her own colleagues (Eric Besson, former National Secretary of the Socialist Party, resigned from his party and has just published a book against the leftwing candidate) has also modified her strategy somewhat over the last few weeks. After having said that she was taking back her freedom, notably with regard to those who are popularly called the "elephants" of the Socialist Party (men of influence in the party, leaders of major regional federations or members of the national bureau), Ségolène Royal is trying to rekindle the elements that helped her succeed, notably during the campaign for the primary elections within her own party, i.e. her freedom of tone, her "out-of-sink" declarations which were not necessarily in line with the ideology of her political party. Although her speech at Villepinte on 11th February included one hundred proposals the main opposition candidate recently refocused her Presidential Pact on seven major points and spoke again of her leitmotif "help in return for a service" which stipulates that every right necessarily leads to a duty. Ségolène Royal is also trying to refocus the campaign on socio-economic subjects, traditional themes on the left. We should remember that employment, buying power and the future of social protection comprise the three main concerns of the French. Insecurity, a major theme of the campaign in the last presidential election on 21st April and 5th May 2003 takes fourth place.
The incidents in which some commuters faced a violent confrontation with the police for several hours on 27th March in the Gare du Nord, one of Paris's main stations and the biggest in Europe, after inspectors on the Parisian Metro arrested a commuter travelling without a ticket, were the source of many comments on the candidates' part. Although the opposition took this opportunity to criticise the results achieved by Nicolas Sarkozy, Interior Minister until 26th March last in terms of the fight against delinquency, the UMP candidate resolutely stood on the side of law and order denounced the Left's indulgent attitude, always ready in his eyes, to find excuses for delinquents. According to a number of political analysts incidents of this kind are often to the "benefit" of the extreme right.
Far from having disappeared, the reasons that led 4.8 million French to vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen on 21st April 2002 have probably multiplied. Just one week before the first round we can also see a similar phenomenon to the one witnessed in 2002 i.e. the rise in popularity of the National Front leader in the polls. Indeed five years ago it was in the last weeks of the campaign that the voting intentions for Jean-Marie Le Pen started to increase before the latter finally overtook Lionel Jospin in the ballot boxes on the eve of the first round, winning 16.86% of the vote, versus 16.18% for the Socialist candidate.
The present President of the Republic, Jacques Chirac, publicly announced his support of Nicolas Sarkozy on 20th March when he read out a declaration on TV. "With regard to my personal choice, matters are quite simple. I wanted to create the UMP to enable France to lead a rigorous modernisation policy long term. In its diversity this political party chose to support Nicolas Sarkozy as candidate in the Presidential election and this was because of his qualities. It is therefore quite natural for me to provide him with my vote and my support," maintained the Head of State. This support was deemed minimal by the entire political community but it was enough for the UMP leader who would like to appear less as a candidate of continuity and rather one who is "breaking with tradition". Nicolas Sarkozy left his post as Interior Minister and Urban Development on 26th March. He was replaced by former Overseas Minister François Baroin (UMP). Xavier Bertrand, one of the UMP's spokespeople also resigned from his position in the Health and Solidarity Ministry to be replaced by Philippe Bas (UMP), former delegate Minister for Social Security, the Elderly, the Handicapped and Family.
The official campaign started on 9th April and will end on 21st (or 20th for those voting on the American continent or in French Polynesia). Five years ago the two weeks preceding the first round enabled the French to discover "the lesser known" candidates, notably Olivier Besancenot (Revolutionary Communist League, LCR) who rose from 0.5% to 5% of voting intentions during the official campaign. On 21st April 2002 he won 4.25% of the vote. Again this year the number of extreme left candidates is high (four in all – Arlette Laguiller, Lutte Ouvrière (LO), José Bové supported by alternative movements, Olivier Besancenot and Gérard Schivardi, supported by the Workers' Party (PT)), the left wing anti-liberal approach will therefore be omnipresent on TV and the radio during the official campaign and could in fine convince a greater number of voters than that recorded to date by the polls.
Just one week before the first round on 22nd April Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy are still in the lead in the polls. According to a survey by CSA on 10th and 11th April last for the daily Le Parisien and the TV channel I.Télé, the UMP candidate is credited with 27% of the vote versus 25% for the Socialist candidate. François Bayrou is due to win 19% of the vote and Jean-Marie Le Pen, 15%. The four extreme leftwing candidates are due to win 8% overall, Marie-George Buffet (French Communist Party, PCF), 2%, Dominique Voynet (Greens), 1.5%, Philippe de Villiers (Movement for France, MPF), 1% and Frédéric Nihous (Hunting, Fishing, Nature and Tradition, CPNT), 1.5%. The poll, undertaken by BVA on 10th April for the regional press, grants 29.5% to Nicolas Sarkozy, 24% to Ségolène Royal, 18% to François Bayrou and 12% to the leader of the National Front. Philippe de Villiers is due to win 2.5% of the vote, the Communist candidate, 2.5%, the extreme leftwing, 9.5% and the ecologist candidate, 1%.
A remarkable fact in these polls is the low popularity of the left that rallies only 35% of voting intentions. Around four voters in ten say however that they still have not made their choice.
The UMP candidate, who is the favourite in the polls, continues to be the source of concern including on the part of his own party, with regard to his ability to rally the French. His description of some inhabitants of the suburbs whom he qualified as "scum" and who he intended to get rid of with a "Kärcher" blights his existence. Ségolène Royal, for her part, has to fight to assert herself and convince those who question her ability to govern France. Finally although François Bayrou is having some success, his lack of programme and especially the vagueness he maintains with regard to the forces and people he would turn to in order to govern if he were to win might comprise a true handicap for him in the end.
Although six out of ten French are anticipating a victory for Nicolas Sarkozy on 6th May less than a third of them however want this. Indeed none of the three candidates credited with the greatest number of voting intentions are the source of any real enthusiasm. Interviewed between 22nd and 24th March by BVA about the candidate they would like to see win the presidential election only 36% of the French say they want Ségolène Royal to win (48% do not want this), 28% want François Bayrou in the Elysée Palace (53% do not want this) and finally 30% only want Nicolas Sarkozy to succeed Jacques Chirac (53% do not want this).