France 2012: Sarkozy may be doomed, but Hollande faces an unenviable challenge

Francois Hollande will struggle to consolidate his left-wing base and tackle Europe’s economic woes. AAP/Ian Langsdon

France went to sleep last weekend knowing that almost a fifth of those who felt compelled to vote in the first round of the presidential election chose a party formed on an openly neo-fascist platform.

Although the Front National’s Marine Le Pen failed to access the second round, her result is far more concerning than her father’s in 2002. Jean-Marie Le Pen received just over 16% of the vote and a ticket to the second round, but that particular election also witnessed a record level of abstention. This year, France saw one of its biggest turnouts since the birth of the Fifth Republic with “only” 20% abstaining.

Left, right, left

So while the Socialists celebrated Francois Hollande’s strong lead, and deservedly, the mood in France was in part dampened by the historic result of the Front National. More importantly, its acceptance as a serious and normalised contender on the French political landscape proved of utmost concern.

Similarly, far left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon was not able to fully express his satisfaction at his impressive result (11%), and proclaim the possible rebirth of a strong left-wing alternative in France. While his party, the Front de Gauche, might have sown the seeds for the growth of another strong contender in French politics, Marine Le Pen’s exploit lessened its claim to have gathered the discontented.

On the right, Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) appears divided and perhaps irremediably damaged after the president’s failure to take the lead in the first round. It is striking too that Le Pen has already announced she will lead the opposition in the next five years. Not surprisingly, her team has not called for its electorate to vote for Sarkozy. Instead, it is already calling for UMP members to join the Front National in a hope to retain their seats in the upcoming legislative election.

François Bayrou’s centre Mouvement Démocratique has also suffered from the radicalisation of politics. From a strong third position in 2007, he fell to fifth, with less than 10% of the vote. This was also most certainly aided by the election becoming an ultimatum for Sarkozy, which drew many to vote for Hollande to express their frustration.

Hollande’s challenge

As the first opinion polls were released, Hollande was predicted a clear winner for the second round with a 6 to 8% margin.

Obviously, many of Le Pen’s voters will return to Sarkozy, as he will most certainly appeal to them further between the two rounds. But if Le Pen does not give the UMP candidate her approval, it is unlikely that the transfer will be enough for Sarkozy to obtain a majority. This is even less likely when we consider that Sarkozy would need to appeal to both Bayrou’s centre electorate and Le Pen’s, an almost impossible feat at this time.

If the polls can be trusted, Hollande should be given a clear mandate to lead France through the continuing European crisis.

But, if elected, the dispassionate “Marshmallow man” will inherit a most uncomfortable position. His mandate will clearly rest on a rejection of Sarkozy’s politics. A large portion of his second round vote will come from the more radical part of the left, born from the revival of the communist party within the Front de Gauche. Needless to say, these voters will expect a real rupture from the politics undertaken in the past ten years and a return to a more social state, with a more inclusive and political conception of Europe.

The dangling sword

This mandate is bound to clash with the interests of the more economically-focused European project. Angela Merkel has already made it clear that Sarkozy’s defeat would lead to a more complicated relationship between France and Germany, the two pillars of the European Union.

Without Germany’s support, it is doubtful the socialists will manage to implement much in terms of European politics. At the same time, by maintaining the austerity lines currently in place, Hollande will certainly face a strong backlash from his supporters.

One can only hope Hollande’s presidency will be influenced by the Front National threat in a positive and constructive way, rather than a paranoid one. By calling for her supporters to abstain, Le Pen will make it clear that she does not want to mingle with those in power, and wants to govern on her own terms. While this is a typical strategy of the extreme right, it could prove all the more successful now the party has been accepted as a mainstream contender. This will be particularly potent in a society deeply distrustful of politicians.

This weekend, it seemed clear to most commentators that Sarkozy’s populist strategy had failed to grant him a second mandate. It has, however, succeeded in making the populist ideas he had borrowed from Le Pen a very real threat, and a heavy sword now dangles over the next French president.

Hollande will have the responsibility of choosing between a truly left-wing platform with many powerful enemies, and toeing the more economic rationalist line and facing the wrath of both his left-wing partners, and a powerful extreme right.