France has a new President since 15th May 2012. In the elections on 6th May, French people turned the page of the five-year term of Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and elected the Socialist François Hollande as new Head of State. This is a historic election, since Hollande becomes only the second Socialist President of France, after François Mitterrand, under the Fifth Republic. After sixteen years of two right-wing presidents, the left is coming back to Élysée Palace in Paris.
Sarkozy’s five-year term
First of all, the result was more a defeat of Sarkozy than a victory of Hollande. The outgoing president had a level of popularity fewer than 40% during almost his term in office. France resisted with enough fortitude the harsh economic crisis which Europe is suffering for the last five years, thanks largely to the effective work of former Minister of Economy and Finances, Christine Lagarde, current Manager Director of the IMF. Despite the significant tax burden and high labor cost which France is suffering and which penalize its competitiveness in the global economy, this is still a dynamic country: it is the world’s fifth-largest economy and third largest in Europe. However, some statistics are worrying: the unemployment rose from 7% in 2007 to 10% in 2012; hundreds of factories were closed; thousands and thousands of workers were sacked, especially in the industrialized north; and France has an alarming public debt which has steadily increased in recent years and is around 90% of GDP. Also, France is the Western country that has the biggest government intervention in national economy. And the inequalities have increased to very worrying levels, especially in Paris, one the cities with more homeless people all over the world; an image which is very far from the one, romantic and bucolic, that the French capital and films like “Midnight in Paris”, by Woody Allen, offer to tourists.
Apart from the economic problems that logically affect France as well, Nicolas Sarkozy was also an unpopular president because of what Centrist leader François Bayrou called “demoralization of public ethics”. The former President practiced an unusual role in the functions of a French Head of State. He seemed more like a Prime Minister. In fact, the former head of Government, François Fillon, enjoyed more popularity than him. Sarkozy won in 2007 with the aim of modernizing the French center-right and carrying out the reforms that France needed. The promises made were not fulfilled. Then, the social and political tension soared in France. Even certain discourses on national identity and immigration not only didn’t strengthen the UMP, the center-right party of Sarkozy, but also fed the far-right National Front, which did a strong opposition to former President.
The election campaign: “Tous contre Sarkozy”
The French presidential elections were a referendum about the figure of Sarkozy. All candidates, from one end to another of the political spectrum, were attacking the president. But French people were not very enthusiastic with François Hollande, the Socialist candidate, a moderate man, who got the nomination after winning primary elections in his party and the renunciation of former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, dismissed by his sex scandals.
The election campaign brought some surprises. The polls had predicted an overwhelming victory in both rounds for François Hollande, something which finally did not happen.
The sensation of the campaign was the candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Front de Gauche, “Left Front”), who filled many squares with outdoor meetings, and doubled in just two months the voting intentions given by polls, to reach finally the 11% in the first round. This former Socialist politician, with his sarcastic speech, made the word “Resistance!” as his battle cry in the field, attacking mercilessly to axis “Merkozy” and the far-right of Marine Le Pen.
Indeed, the result got by National Front’s candidate, Marine Le Pen (18% of votes) was the most surprising. She achieved a better score than his father, Jean Marie, in 2002, when he qualified for the second round and caused a veritable earthquake in French politics. Mélenchon did not beat Le Pen, although both of them had an anti-capitalist rhetoric. This was due to the fact that the Left Front Candidate focused exclusively on urban areas and Le Pen focused her efforts in northern France, a countryside increasingly impoverished and with an industrial decline more and more pronounced. To sum up, National Front’s vote had already left the complicated and dangerous suburbs of big cities, and changed to the poorer north of the country. The keys were the anti-capitalist rhetoric of Le Pen, her harsh criticisms to Sarkozy and her populist attitude anti-immigration and anti-foreigners.
François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy qualified for the second round. The Socialist candidate was the leading vote-getter (28,63%) versus the outgoing President (27,18%). Sarkozy was still alive but he became the first occupant of the Élysée who lost in first round of presidential elections.
Then, Sarkozy played all out. The candidate for re-election turned right to get many of the votes given to Marine Le Pen in the first round, leaving the political center and adopting a speech which was not very far from the National Front. Even more, he spread the “vote of fear”, saying that Hollande would leave France like Socialists had left in inheritance Greece, Portugal and Spain. Sarkozy criticized the administration of former Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (Socialist), with whom he had maintained an excellent relationship during his term in office. Naturally, Spain was not the epicenter of the French campaign, but the words of the then President of France were not appropriate and not responsible, because they happened to be in the context of a speculative attack against Spanish public debt.
The great debate, on 2nd May, did not reverse the situation. Sarkozy had much to gain and little to lose. But Hollande resisted the attacks of candidate-president and he survived the discussion. The phrase which will go down in the history of that debate is the already famous in France “Moi Président de la République…” (“Me, President of the Republic…”), with which the Socialist candidate explained how his behavior as president would be. Furthermore, Hollande was supported by Left Front and the Greens between the two rounds; Centrist candidate François Bayrou announced that he would vote personally for him; and Marine Le Pen said that she would vote blank. Even so, and despite his loneliness, Sarkozy was soaring in the polls…
“Le jour de gloire est arrivé…”. 6th May, and with a high turnout (above the 80%), François Hollande was elected as new President of France with 51,64% of votes. Paris was one big party. The Place de la Bastille and the center of the city were packed by thousands of people, who celebrated the victory of Socialist candidate, or rather, the defeat of Sarkozy (“Sarkozy, c’est fini!” was one of the most popular phrases echoed there). And it almost looked like the celebration of a sport success…
Hollande’s victory was much tighter than expected. Sarkozy, who did not have any external support for the second round, got a much higher result than expected. However, he became the second president in office, after Giscard d’Estaing, who lost an election.
Hollande in the Élysée Palace. And now what?
The axis “Merkozy” is broken, the era “Merkollande” is born. Europe, affected by debt crisis in peripheral countries, including Spain, seemed to breathe easily with the Hollande’s arrival at French Presidency. The Socialist candidate said throughout the campaign that many European leaders were waiting for his victory, including conservative heads of governments “like the Spanish one”. The main promise made by François Hollande in campaign was not to ratify the EU Fiscal Compact to control the public deficit, if it did not include mechanisms for economic incentives. The new French minister of Economy and Finances, Pierre Moscovici, has ratified it. It is also to be seen whether Hollande keeps his other big promise in campaign: to tax until the 75% on incomes over one million euros.
François Hollande took a first stroke of authority in its ranks when he appointed Jean-Marc Ayrault as the new French prime minister. Ayrault was up to now mayor of Nantes and president of the Socialist Group in the National Assembly; he is also a professor of German and the French politician who best speaks the language of Goethe, which is very important nowadays. With this appointment, Hollande put into Hôtel de Matignon a trusted person and left outside the government his great “internal” rival, the PS leader Martine Aubry.
However, the Government Ayrault enters a period which could be described as “provisional”. The elections to the National Assembly are going to be held in June, and although polls suggest that the Socialist Party will get the victory, we will have to examine the magnitude of the possible parliamentary majority of the Left in the French Parliament, and how many seats will have the main opposition forces: UMP and, above all, the National Front. The elections will also be interesting for French conservatives, which will have to figure out who leads the UMP after the withdrawal of Sarkozy. The media attention will also focus on the direct duel between Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the electoral district of Hénin-Beaumont (Pas de Calais). And possible changes after the elections in Government Ayrault cannot be ruled out yet, especially if some ministers are not elected as Members of Parliament for their districts.
Finally, these first days were very intense in the international agenda of President Hollande: a visit to Chancellor Angela Merkel; a bilateral meeting with President Barack Obama; his participation in the G-8 summit at Camp David and in the NATO meeting in Chicago. In his first statement, Hollande said that his economic policy would be based on two pillars: austerity (reduce the alarming public debt of France) and economic stimulus (through investment in productive sectors). A policy that can benefit countries suffocated economically like Spain, and which is completely shared by President Obama. Is Angela Merkel being increasingly isolated in Europe? It will be seen in next weeks and months. But although it is early to bet, a new era for France and, above all, what most concerns to all of us, for Europe, may have begun.
Francisco José Rodrigo Luelmo