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The Hardline Right Moves into the Élysee Palace - Sarkozy Wins the French Presidential Electionby Open-Publishing - Friday 11 May 2007
By Jean-Paul Piérot
Presidential Elections. With a record participation rate (85%), the French have given a majority to the UMP candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy (53%).
The news wasn’t exactly unexpected, but it still represents a serious shock for millions of French voters, including for the majority of the younger generation, who learnt at 8 pm on Sunday 6 May that Nicolas Sarkozy had been elected to the Élysée Palace, with his 53% victory in the second round of the presidential elections, leaving the Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal, trailing with 47%.
Voter turnout was extremely high – even higher than in the first round, two weeks earlier (84%). If this second round had really mobilized more voters, we did not witness the hoped-for democratic somersault that would have been able to create a roadblock for a hardline Right, shed of its complexes, that has been recycling the ideas of the Extreme Right. In the last presidential election in 2002, these same ideas, incarnated by Le Pen, were rejected by 82% of the French electorate, who decided, for this precise reason, to vote for Chirac.
Demagogy and populism
So today we are entering a political context that is particularly serious and disturbing. Nicolas Sarkozy feels he can legitimately promote an ultraliberal agenda that is anti-union, generous to the rich, stigmatizing the poor, the unemployed, immigrants. Meanwhile, the Left, with all its constituent forces, comes out of this test seriously weakened. The Socialist Party has lost a presidential election for a second consecutive time (after Jospin in 2002). This is a rare occurrence in the history of French politics of the last 25 years: a major election has not resulted for a change in power.
In his first declaration after the results were announced, Nicolas Sarkozy chimed out once again his catchphrases: ’Work, authority, merit’, defending ’national identity’ and rejecting any notion of ’sorrow or regrets’. Throughout these last weeks, Nicolas Sarkozy has used all the ammunition of demagogy and populism. ’I am the candidate of the people’, repeated the ex-mayor of Neuilly – Paris’s richest suburb – and the favorite of MEDEF, the employers’ association, who was already a minister in Édouard Balladur’s government in 1993. At the same time as advocating an openly neoliberal programme, that will further weaken workers’ rights, he has not hesitated to make inflamatory declarations, presenting himself as the supreme saviour who will oppose companies shifting production abroad, critic of the politics of the ERBD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development), helping those on low wages ... Concurrently, to get the most reactionary segments of the Right on his side and attract the votes of the National Front (who did in fact rally to his support), he has clothed himself in the armour of a crusader against the heritage of May 1968, and flattered the nostalgics of colonialism. After five years of the Right in power the tally is evident: rampant relocation abroad of companies, loss of jobs, privatization, increased poverty and job-insecurity, but also defeats in the 2004 regional elections and in the European Constitution referendum, and the victory of the youth against new employment contracts (the infamous CPEs) - there were here all the ingredients for a defeat of the UMP leader, who had been a minister in the Rafferin and Villepin governments. Jet Sarkozy managed to distance himself from this record.
The Socialist Party’s campaign: a failure
The first round had created a test of strength that was unfavourable to the Socialist Party. With 25.8% of the votes, the Socialists entered the final round with a handicap of 5%, trailing the head of the UMP (31%). The rise of François Bayrou (18.5%, compared to 6.2% in 2002) in the first round can be explained, in part, by the discontent of Socialist voters who were little convinced by their candidate’s campaign, voting ’tactically’ in favour of the candidate who they felt was best positioned to defeat Nicolas Sarkozy. The other candidates on the Left, taken together, only winning a little more than 10% of the vote, the Socialist job-applicant for the Élysée entered the second round with less than 40% of voter support.
François Bayrou profited from this weakness by remaining a player in the second round, going as far as participating in a TV and radio debate with Ségolène Royal. Winning these 6.5-million votes of the political centre soon became the Socialist candidate’s main objective. Last Thursday in Lille, Ségolène Royal declared: ’If I am elected, I will work with the centre and with François Bayrou in particular’, thereby relaunching the debate on an alliance between the Socialist Party and the centrists, which several leading voices in the party, including Michel Ricard, have been appealing for. This snuggling up to François Bayrou clouded the picture for the electorate on the Left, and the outcome was a mediocre result: 40% of Bayrou voters were going to vote for Royal, the same number for Sarkozy. In the closing days of the campaign, the Socialist candidate showed herself more combative, particularly in the televised debate with Sarkozy, but without winning new votes. The mass rally at the Charléty stadium (in the south of Paris) was an undoubted success. But it was too late to relaunch the dynamic of a ’winning’ Left.
Fighting back in the upcoming Legislative Elections
On election night, 6 May, in her first statement after the results, Ségolène Royal, prudent about the consequence of Nicolas Sarkozy’s election, implicitly suggested that the repositioning towards the friends of François Bayrou was still going to move ahead. She intends to work, she said, ’on the renewal of the Left, with new convergences beyond our current boundaries’. What lesson is the Socialist Party learning from this failure? From Sunday evening, the first criticisms were already surfacing from two of Ségolène Royal’s rivals for the presidential candidature. Laurent Fabius observed that ’the flag of the Left has been lowered’ and warned the Socialist Party leaders not to fall into campaigning in the legislative elections (June 10 and 17) with a programme based on ’collegiality’. Fabius is calling for ’a Left that discards any complexes, that assumes its values’. Meanwhile, the ’social-democratic’ critic, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, particularly targeting party-secretary François Holland, declared ’We have just spent five years without renewing ourselves. This election has been a rather severe judgement on the way the Socialist Party has been functioning.’ François Hollande himself recognized on Sunday night there were ’mistakes’ in Ségolène Royal’s campaign, which ’doubtless didn’t talk enough about concrete proposals’.