Outgoing President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist François Hollande are running neck and neck for victory in the first round of the French Presidential Election.


Corinne Deloy,  

Fondation Robert Schuman,  

Helen Levy


26 March 2012

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Deloy Corinne

Corinne Deloy

Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).

Robert Schuman Fondation

Fondation Robert Schuman

Levy Helen

Helen Levy

Outgoing President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist François Hollande are running n...

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On 22nd April next nearly 45 million French voters are being called to ballot in the first round of the presidential election. Outgoing Head of State, Nicolas Sarkozy (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) announced on 15th February last that he was running for office again. According to the polls François Hollande (Socialist Party, PS) is his main rival. Both men are running neck and neck in the polls in the first round and they should come out ahead on 22nd April and face each other in a second round that will take place two weeks later, ie on 6th May next.

The presidential election will be followed on 10th and 17th June by general elections that will lead to the renewal of the 577 members of the National Assembly, the lower chamber of Parliament.

The French Political System

Since 1962 the President of the Republic of France has been elected by direct universal suffrage in a majority two round election. If none of the candidates wins the absolute majority vote in the first round, a second round is organised two weeks later. Every candidate aspiring to the supreme office must be aged at least 23 and present at least 500 representatives' signatures (MPs, regional councillors, general councillors, mayors) from at least 30 départements (counties) local and overseas communities, with not more than one tenth of them being from the same département.

Head of the armed forces, the President of the France, also holds executive power. He appoints the Prime Minister and puts an end to his post if the latter presents a letter of resignation to the government. The Head of State promulgates the laws; on the government's proposal or on the part of that of the two chambers of parliament, he can submit a law or the ratification of a treaty to referendum. After consultation with the Prime Minister and the leaders of both chambers the President of the Republic can also pronounce the dissolution of the National Assembly, the lower chamber in Parliament.

On 13th March last the Constitutional Council drew up a list of ten political personalities, ie two less than in the election on 22nd April and 6th May 2007, who were officially running in the presidential election:

– Nicolas Sarkozy (Union for a Popular Movement UMP), 57 years old, outgoing Head of State;

– François Hollande (Socialist Party, PS), supported by the Radical Left Party (PRG) and the Republican and Citizens' Movement (MRC). Aged 57, Mr Hollande was the First Secretary of the Socialist Party from 1997 to 2008, and Mayor of Tulle from 2001 to 2008. At present he is an MP of Corrèze and Chairman of the General Council in the same département. The left's candidate was appointed by the PS on 21st October last after having won the primary election (56.57% of the vote) on 16th October 2011 in the second round when he facedMartine Aubry (PS), Ségolène Royal (PS), Manuel Valls (PS), Arnaud Montebourg (PS) and Jean-Michel Baylet (PRG);

– François Bayrou (Democratic Movement, MoDem), 60 years old, is MP in the Pyrénées-Atlantic and former Education Minister (1993-1997) in the governments led by Edouard Balladur (Assembly for the Republic, RPR) and Alain Juppé (RPR). Candidate in the presidential election on 21st April and 5th May 2002 he won 6.83% of the vote in the first round; five years later in the election on 22nd April and 6th May 2007, he came third and won 18.57% in the first round;

– Marine Le Pen (National Front, FN), 43 years old and leader of the National Front (FN). Regional Councillor of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, she is also an MEP;

– Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Left Front, FG), 60 years old, MEP. Joint leader of the Left Party (PG), which together with the French Communist Party (PCF) forms the Left Front – he was Vocational Education Minister (2000-2002) in the government led by Prime Minister (1997-2002) Lionel Jospin (PS);

– Eva Joly (Europe Ecology-Greens, EELV), 68 years old, former magistrate and presently an MEP;

– Nathalie Arthaud (Lutte ouvrière, LO), 42 years old, a professor of economics and management and spokesperson for the far left party, Lutte ouvrière;

–Philippe Poutou (New Anti-Capitalist Party, NPA), 45 years old, appointed on 25th June 2011 by his party with 67% of the vote during the party's national conference;

– Nicolas Dupont-Aignan (Debout la République, DLR), 51 years old, a former member of the UMP and candidate of the sovereignist right who pleads for a return to the franc and a new system of common currency;

– Jacques Cheminade (Solidarity and Progress, S&P), 70 years old was candidate in the presidential election on 23rd April and 7th May 1995 when he won 0.28% of the vote;

The two "main" candidates

Taxation, buying power, economic themes are at the heart of the campaign this year in the French presidential election On 13th January the agency Standard and Poor's downgraded France's rating (and that of nine other countries in the euro zone), from AAA to AA+). The economic situation is difficult: the country is in debt (1,740 billion euros in public debt ie 85% of the GDP) and 9.8% of the population is unemployed (December 2011 figure). Five years ago Nicolas Sarkozy was elected as Head of State thanks to a programme focused on: economic flexibility, an increase in growth and the re-establishment of order in public finances. The international economic crisis has however forced the French president to change his policy making it less liberal, more pro-active and oriented to Colbertism. Several reforms have been made during Nicolas Sarkozy's five years in office notably reducing tax on overtime, the introduction of the tax shield, the reform of the retirement system and that of the civil services and university autonomy. Other reforms have not been rolled out due in part to the difficult economic situation.

François Hollande

Winner of the left's primary election with 56.57% of the vote ahead of Martine Aubry (43.3% of the vote) on 16th October last, François Hollande was appointed candidate in the presidential election five days later. After an end of year when he seemed to be keeping a low profile, saying that he wanted to take his time – to the point of worrying some of his supporters François Hollande gave his first speech in the campaign at the Bourget on 22nd January. He then launched an attack against the world of finance. "My real rival has no name and belongs to no party. He will never stand for election and yet he rules. That rival is the world of finance," declared the Socialist candidate who then put forward several proposals: the separation of investment banking activities from speculative operations; the ban on French banks working in tax havens; the abolition of stock options (except for nascent businesses and carefully managed bonuses and the introduction of a tax on financial transactions – an idea that has also been defended by outgoing President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Four days after his speech at the Bourget on 26th January, the Socialist candidate put forward "Sixty Commitments for France". Amongst these feature the creation of 60,000 jobs in Education over five years, the introduction of a generation contract (ie employment under an unlimited contract for young people seconded by a more experienced workers who would be kept in work until they leave for retirement); a major tax reform with the merger of income tax and the CSG; the introduction of an additional tax band of 45% for incomes over 150,000 € and the re-designing of the business tax to the benefit of business itself. François Hollande is also suggesting the creation of 150,000 jobs for young people (a programme adopted by the PS planned for 300,000); the introduction of a proportional element into the general elections and voting rights in local elections for foreigners living in France. Finally, he says that if he wins the presidential election he will renegotiate the European budgetary discipline treaty that was signed on March 2nd last by 25 of the 27 EU Member States (except for the UK and the Czech Republic) to which he would like to add a Responsibility, Governance and Growth pact.

Nicolas Sarkozy

The outgoing President wanted to enter the campaign as late as possible in order to maintain suspense and to protect the integrity of the status given to him as Head of State and also to appear as a president who acts and protects for as long as possible. On 18th January Nicolas Sarkozy convened a social summit for employment with all of the social partners. On 29th January he announced the implementation of a so-called social VAT as of 1st October 2012 set at 21.2% (ie 1.6 points more in comparison with the present VAT rate), representing a transfer of 13 billion euros to fund social protection, notably that given to the family policy. In exchange in order to boost the economy he would introduce a reduction in employers' contributions who will be exempted from paying the total amount of the employers' family contributions that weigh heavily on the lowest wages (from 1.6 to 2.1 times the minimum wage (SMIC)) and a 2 point increase on the CSG on financial income. He also said that a tax on financial transactions (to a total of 0.1%) would be introduced in August and that the 35 hour working week and the wage levels might be renegotiated with the agreement of a majority of workers in order to increase working time when the economy requires it. Finally he announced that it would become obligatory for every company that had at least 250 employees to take on at least five young people as part of a sandwich course or as apprentices.

Under pressure from his peers, the rise to power of the National Front and the slow, but regular consolidation of his main rival, socialist François Holland and the poor results in the polls finally convinced Nicolas Sarkozy to declare that he was standing earlier than he had wanted to. "If I did not stand for another term it would be the same as giving up this mission, it would be like a captain abandoning his ship," he said on 15th February when he officially announced his intentions on the television channel TF1.

Running under the banner "Strong France" Nicolas Sarkozy wants to appear as the "President of the People" to whom he wants to give back their sense of expression, notably by calling for a referendum in the event of a stalemate. "The referendum is in the spirit of the V Republic. Those who think that it is a populist step to turn to the people really think in fact that the people is not sensible enough, not intelligent enough for it to give its opinion," he maintained. His programme is set to the right and promotes the values of work, responsibility and authority. He criticises state handouts and suggests the organisation of a popular consultation on conditioning unemployment benefits with the obligation to undertake a training course. "Benefits will not be a payment that we receive passively but money granted to each job seeker in exchange for training that he will have to follow," he declared. The outgoing Head of State also want beneficiaries of the "active solidarity revenue" (RSA) – a minimum income that is subject to the search for work, to undertake seven hours of community work per week (paid at the minimum rate SMIC). He announced that he wanted to ban "top-hat"retirement plans (funded entirely by the company and exempted from social contributions) and "golden parachutes" (compensation paid out when a company's top manager leaves office) and to subject the level of managers' remuneration in large companies to the general shareholders' assembly.

Unlike his socialist rival, Nicolas Sarkozy has yet to present his programme for the five year period to come but he has given details of the measures he would like to see implemented. Hence he is suggesting exempting companies of social charges for the employment of one job-seeker aged over 55 with a permanent or limited work contract for a period of at least six months, with permanent, limited aid set within the limits of the Social Security (36,000€ gross salary).

The outgoing president, who regularly insists on the seriousness of the international economic crisis that is affecting France ("I will never pretend that we have succeeded in everything but I want to say that we have escaped catastrophe," he declared on 19th February), hopes to continue on the path to public finance consolidation and promotes the need to continue reforms so that France can maintain its social model. On 11th March during a meeting in Villepinte, he suggested the introduction of a Buy European Act according to the Buy American Model, a measure acted in 1933 to protect products manufactured in the USA by American companies. "Free trade, yes: anti-trust no" he stressed – he wants to make it obligatory for all EU and Member States administrations to work only with businesses from European countries and to introduce reciprocity rules that will enable to introduction of retaliation measures against countries who prevent European exports. The European Commissioners in charge of the Internal Market (Michel Barnier) and Trade (Karel de Gucht) are preparing a proposal at present that will oblige some countries to open their procurement markets under the threat of being excluded from certain European markets.

On 11th March Nicolas Sarkozy indicated that he wanted to review the Schengen agreements that regulate entry conditions and free movement within the signatory countries. "We have to have political government within Schengen in the same as there is now a euro zone government. We need joint discipline in border control (...). We have to be able to sanction, suspend or exclude any State from Schengen that does not comply (...) We need greater convergence in terms of foreigners rights and asylum," he maintained. The outgoing president said that if the EU did not develop in this direction within the next twelve months, "France would suspend its participation in the agreements." This is a somewhat unrealistic declaration since the latter have been part of the Union's treaties since 1997. With regard to Schengen Brussels is also working on a reform. Moreover the European Commission recalled that solutions provided to governance problems had to be taken from a "community" point of view.

The other candidates

Elected as leader of the National Front on 16th January 2011 during her party's congress in Tours, Marine Le Pen has ipso facto become the FN's candidate in the Presidential election. Her status as candidate was validated on 16th May 2011 by the FN's political bureau. Her presidential project, presented on 19th November 2011, intends to be anti-liberal and against globalisation. To bring France out of its debt Marine Le Pen is advising on France leaving the euro zone (with both a return to the franc and the transformation of the euro into a common currency according to the ECU model), a proposal that she hopes to submit to referendum and the introduction of "reasoned" protectionist measures (establishment of taxes on imported goods and services). She defends an increase in public spending (increase in police force budgets, justice, research, infrastructure development, aid to SMEs, a rise in 200€ on salaries that are 1.4 times more than the SMIC via the exemption of social charges). Finally she wants to make radical cuts to the number of immigrants entering France (legally) and to send back all illegal immigrants.

The Democratic Movement's candidate (MoDem) François Bayrou started the electoral campaign early. The centrist whose party suffered in the elections (general, regional and local) five years ago, has experienced a difficult period. Like five years ago he is standing as the only real "anti-system" candidate and likes to say that he is the first to have warned about the extent of the State's debt, which, he says shows that he is firmly attached to "telling the truth". In his fight against the bi-party system, he intends to build a new type of democracy and has chosen to undertake a campaign on "producing French".

François Bayrou is also calling for a reform of Europe, asking for the election by universal suffrage of a European leader who might embody the Union which, he says by referring to the couple Angela Merkel-Nicolas Sarkozy "does not govern" itself. Mr Bayrou, who has always been pro-European, supports the golden rule, ie the inclusion into the Constitution of a limit to the public deficit and says he supports a common growth, equipment and innovation policy that focuses on legitimate authority (elected). However he is against the idea of renegotiating the European budgetary discipline treaty defended by socialist candidate François Hollande.

The withdrawal of Hervé Morin (New Centre, NC) and Jean-Louis Borloo's decision (Radical Party) to give up their quest in the presidential election left the way open to François Bayrou even though the centrist position in France is still extremely fragmented.

For the first time since 1974 the French Communist Party (PCF) has not put a candidate forward in the presidential election. It supports MEP Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who represents the Left Front that rallies his party, the Left Party and the PCF. He likes to stand as the heir to historic socialism carried forward by former Head of State (1981-1995) François Mitterand (PS). A talented orator and representative of the "revolutionary left" (which is against the "reformist left" led by François Hollande), Jean-Luc Mélenchon turns to populism at times as shown in the title of his latest book "Qu'ils s'en aillent tous". (Let them all leave). He has called for the "Bastille to be taken again" and for "civic insurrection". An anti-capitalist, he stands as the defender of public services (he is suggesting the employment of 800,000 people in the civil service), he defends a minimum wage of 1,700€ per month, a 100% reimbursement on healthcare spending, the capping of rents and retirement at 60, at a full pension rate. To fund all of this his solution is to "make the banks and the rich pay." Jean-Luc Mélenchon says that he would stand down in the second round in support of the best placed candidate on the left.

Winner in the primary election organised by the ecologists with 58.16% of the vote ahead of Nicolas Hulot (41.34%) on 12th July 2011 Eva Joly was appointed the candidate of Europe Ecology-Greens in the presidential election. The MEP experienced a difficult debut in her campaign. Almost inaudible, she struggled over the nuclear issue which was the focus of debate after the accident at the nuclear power plant of Fukushima Daiichi in Japan on 11th March 2011 – and failed when answering questions about employment and the maintenance of buying power. But the ecologists have always found presidential elections hard, which is an extremely personal campaign in which the Greens, often bearers of innovative ideas and which aim to play the collective field, are ill at ease.

Whilst the far left candidates won 10.44% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election in 2002 and then 5.75% five years later, Nathaliie Artaud and Philippe Poutou are struggling in the polls and only total 2% of the voting intentions.

The murders in Montauban and Toulouse, a turning point in the presidential election?

Whilst the electoral campaign officially started on 20th March last several tragic events put politics on hold for a while. The murder of a soldier in Toulouse on 11th March last and then that of two others four days later in Montauban and finally that of four other people (including three children) in front of a Jewish school in Toulouse on 19th March gave rise to a shock wave in France. Some days later the suspected killer, Mohamed Merah, a young 23 year-old Frenchma, a fundamental Islamist, who acted alone (according to the first observations), was identified. The latter was finally killed by the police force (RAID, an elite brigade in the French police force) after a 32 hour siege and negotiations at his home.

The murders affected France greatly even though it is too early to understand what the political consequences will be. "These are our children. It is France that has been affected (...) We have to do everything to make these anti-Semitic acts and racism lead to a joint, firm response on the part of all of the Republic," declared Nicolas Sarkozy. "It is not a school of Jews, or a town that have been affected. It affects all of France. And so it is the Republic, with its status, its strength and unity that has to respond to this barbarous attack," stressed François Hollande. "All French people are under attack and have been injured by this murderous madness that has taken on a different face," indicated François Bayrou.

After the murderer's death the electoral campaign took off again but the tone has changed. Security and the fight to counter terrorism and that of radical Islamism or more widely, the position of Islam in France, may find themselves at the centre of political debate. Outgoing President Sarkozy has already made three proposals. "From now on anyone who regularly consults internet sites that approve terrorism or which call for hate or violence will be punished by the law (...) anyone who travels abroad to follow lessons of indoctrination, or ideologies that lead to terrorism will be punished by the law," he declared. He also announced that "the communication of extremist ideologies will be punished according to penal law with the means that exist, ie counter terrorism." François Hollande says that there was not necessarily any need to "change the law to step up security" but that it was vital to "strengthen our means", which were allocated to it.

All of the candidates have not given the impression that they are trying to take over the tragedy as their own or to use it to their advantage, a position that would be viewed badly by the French population.

According to the most recent poll by BVA and published on 22nd March last, François Hollande is due to win the first round of the presidential election on 22nd April next. With 29.5% of the vote he is due to come out ahead of the outgoing Head of State Nicolas Sarkozy, who is due to win 28% of the vote. The Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is due to come third with 14% of the vote. Marine Le Pen is due to win 13% of the vote, and François Bayrou 12%. The other five candidates are due to win under 5% of the vote, including 2% for ecologist Eva Joly. A CSA poll puts outgoing President Nicolas Sarkozy ahead in the voting intentions with 30% of the vote in the first round ahead of François Hollande (28%). In one poll the FN leader is due to come third with 13.5% of the vote ahead of François Bayrou and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (13% each). The other candidates are due to win under 5% of the vote.

The PS's candidate François Hollande is still the favourite in the second round of the election on 6th May.

Forced by the economic situation and without any strong popularity, both of the main candidates seem to have avoided the real debate and have caused doubt about their political project. In an Ipsos poll, published on 7th March, the French population said that the electoral campaign was "not really interesting" and deplored th fact that the most important issues -in their opinion - (employment, buying power, school, housing, retirement) have not been adequately addressed.

Outgoing President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist François Hollande are running n...

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