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France 2012: Sarkozy’s tough road ahead

French President Nicolas Sarkozy should be worried about the upcoming elections. EPA/Yoan Valat

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has a tight fight on his hands. He’ll be taking on the Socialist Party’s Francois Hollande in the elections next year. And he could struggle to get a second term.

Four years ago, in the aftermath of his landslide victory against Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal, it was widely expected that Sarkozy would easily claim a second term in 2012.

The extreme right was in shambles under Jean-Marie Le Pen, the moderate left had failed in its bid to outflank Sarkozy’s populism and the minor parties lacked voting power.

Now nearly four years later, all that has changed, and Sarkozy’s chances are now much less certain.

Where it all went wrong

The future was bright for Sarkozy, his supporters confident in the certainty of a ten year term in government while his detractors braced themselves for right-wing government that was set to last.

Yet as he gained almost unchallenged hegemony, Sarkozy and his acolytes became their own worst enemies. After his election, he spent the night at one of the most exclusive nightclubs on the Champs Elysées, before escaping on a yacht owned by a billionaire friend.

From then on, he was internationally and unforgettably known as “President Bling-Bling”, a clear dint in his populist strategy.

This would be the first of many blunders and miscalculations.

Scandal after scandal

Sarkozy made the front page more often for his private life and for the corruption scandals his party found itself embroiled in, than for his policies.

His attempts to appeal to the basest instincts of the French population, and particularly to the Front National (FN) voters, backfired.

He soon proved unable to keep his promises, embittering further those he had seduced and alienating the vast majority who did not recognise themselves in his nationalist politics.

Yet while Sarkozy revived hope in his opponents, their divisions seem to have so far prevented any plausible alternative to arise.

The Left’s failure to gain support

Despite its historic victory in the Senate election and the success of its primaries, the Parti Socialiste (PS) appears still incapable of offering a new vision and unable to shake the demons of its past.

Since Lionel Jospin was defeated in the first round of the 2002 elections by Le Pen, the Socialists have remained dumbfounded and failed to counter the populist tide surfed by the right.

Like the Labor Party in Australia, the Socialists have increasingly alienated their historical electorate in favour of middle-class voters.

Their failure to retain the interest of the lower classes of society resulted in the dramatic rise in abstention.

The Dominique-Strauss Kahn scandal

Dominique Strauss-Kahn was the front runner against Sarkozy but sexual assault allegations have made him an unlikely candidate. EPA/Maxppp/Olivier Corsan

Yet until recently there was hope for the Parti Socialiste as Sarkozy himself allowed Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) to gain international prominence by supporting his appointment as head of the IMF.

In the past year, many became confident in DSK’s ability to beat Sarkozy and become the next French president. Needless to say, the Strauss-Kahn’s scandal, where he was accused of sexually assaulted a hotel maid in New York and then acquitted, was a disaster for the Socialists.

Who else is Left?

Despite the loss of its most charismatic candidate, the first round of the Socialist Party’s primaries was a great success with more than two million people making their way to the booths for the first round on October 9.

The first US-style primaries ever organised in France were set to decide who would be the Socialist candidate between three favourites, Monsieur Hollande, Martine Aubry and 2007 presidential candidate Ségolène Royal.

Hollande’s eventual cruise to victory was not without its surprises, including Royal’s dip in popularity (7%) and the success of the most left-wing candidate, Arnaud Montebourg, who obtained up to 17% of the vote in the first round.

This could have been anticipated as many Socialist supporters have grown increasingly frustrated at the centrist approach taken by their party since the 1980s.

Clearly this push represents a strong wish for the renewal of a party often dominated by politicians the French call “elephants” for their longevity.

With Hollande often considered too soft even within his own ranks, many will fight to the left of the PS to gather the vote of the growing discontented.


Winner of the French socialist party’s primaries, François Hollande is now seen as real challenger to President Sarkozy. AFP Photo/Thomas Samson

While the current social turmoil the world over could bode a promising result for the extreme left, parties on that side of the political spectrum appear currently unable to take advantage of the new form of politics taking place in the streets.

The Front de Gauche (Left Front), a collection of parties including the formerly powerful Communist Party, seems the most likely to play an important part in the election.

Its leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former socialist, remains a divisive figure but could benefit from Socialist voters deserting their former party for a more radical alternative. A worrying thought for the Socialists as he confirmed he would not take part in a coalition government.

The divided Greens

As in many western democracies, environmentalists are on the rise in France but while the green ticket could be one of the possible winners in the French power vacuum, many questions remain to be answered.

In their present state, they are deeply divided and it is hard to see an uncontested candidature emerging.

In fact, the split between various factions seems likely to lessen the appeal of the greens in general.

Sarkozy’s internal battle

Although he hasn’t yet formally confirmed his candidacy, it seems the biggest threat to Sarkozy’s re-election seems to come from within his own camp.

His flirt with the extreme right, notably in his creation of a Ministry for Immigration and National Identity and his dealing with the Muslim community in general, has created a rift in the moderate right.

The extreme right’s threat

Marine Le Pen took over her father’s party this year and is now running in the 2012 French elections. AFP/Miguel Medina

Increasingly, the extreme right appears the most able to hold key to the elections.

Recent polls sent a shockwave across French politics when they showed the current leader of the Front National and daughter of the former leader, Marine Le Pen could lead the first round of the elections.

However, the apparent resurgence of the Front National must be taken with caution. Polls can be wrong.

History lessons

It’s also worth looking back to 2007, where the rise of a minor party enabled the two main parties to run a fear campaign against smaller protest and extreme parties. They successfully convinced many voters to make a “useful vote” (vote utile) and saw an unexpected boost in their primary vote.

More worrying, Le Pen’s “defeat” in 2007 was at the cost of a rightward shift in both the discourse of the moderate left and right in an attempt to stem the flow of voters deserting their ranks to join the Front National or abstention.

If the Front remains high in the polls, it is likely that this populist race to the bottom continues at the expense of minorities.

Therefore, while Marine Le Pen’s attempt to make her father’s party more moderate might be a success in the lead up to the election, this early rise might prove extremely harmful to both the Front National and other minor parties, and a blessing for the “establishment”.

This could be extremely beneficial to Sarkozy as he would be in a similar situation to that of 2007.

His approval ratings remain low, with six months to go and a few more scandals to handle, Sarkozy remains in the run for a re-election thanks not to his strengths, but his opponents’ weaknesses.

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