France’s Fate: Socialist François Hollande Leads Presidential Election

Under a first-past-the-post system, socialist contender François Hollande would have won Sunday’s presidential election in France: he garnered 28.5% of the vote, while the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy lagged a bit behind with 27.1%.

Right-wing populist Marine Le Pen received 18.2%. Neo-communist Jean-Luc Mélenchon received 11.1%, and centrist François Bayrou received 9.1%. Five other candidates — including the Green Party’s Eva Joly and local Lyndon Larouche activist Jacques Cheminade — received less than 7% combined.

However, France uses the two-round electoral system (along with beacons of democracy such as Afghanistan, Argentina, Ukraine, and Zimbabwe). Sunday’s ballot was thus no more than a preliminary test — the real election will take place on May 6, when French voters will decide between the two frontrunners only. And here is a splendid paradox: every poll points to a Hollande victory, yet statistics show there is a potential conservative majority and that Sarkozy may still win.

On the first ballot, the global Left (Hollande, Mélenchon, and most of the very small candidates) received less than 45% of the vote. The global non-Left (Sarkozy, Le Pen, Bayrou, and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a Gaullist loyalist who received 1.8%) summed more than 56%.

The Le Pen and Bayrou votes are crucial: it is unlikely, to say the least, that most of them will throw their support to Hollande.

So why did Sarkozy finish second (a disgrace that no French incumbent president had yet suffered)? He had been a conservative — perhaps neoconservative — candidate in the 2007 presidential election. However, he disappointed many if not most of his followers thoughout his first term, even though — through a piecemeal approach — he introduced many suitable economic and business reforms and took timid steps to reform the constitution in a truly democratic and bipartisan way.

His failure was in part a matter of character. As a president, he lacked gravitas, vista, charisma: some things the French, who never really jettisoned their old monarchic culture, couldn’t forgive. His troubled private life (a divorce from his politically minded wife Cecilia shortly after his election, his instant romance and marriage to model Carla Bruni) did not help.

Then he proved to be a poor manager. He didn’t know how to lead a team, to share authority, to avoid micromanagement, to sell his achievements in a convincing way. But what mattered most was his constantly shifting policies. A French Reaganite upon being elected, he became a classic French statist and welfare provider after the 2008 financial meltdown. Though a fierce critic of illegal immigration, he didn’t launch any real policies to curtail it. He defended the pro-Western republic of Georgia in 2008, but he then became a Putin sympathizer.

Though an anti-Turkish militant while campaigning, he later engaged the misty design of a Mediterranean alliance of democratic European nations with undemocratic Arab countries and Erdogan’s Turkey. A great supporter of Israel in 2007, Sarkozy later criticized the Jewish state’s self-defense operations in the Gaza as “disproportionate”; he even called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nethanyahu “a liar” in a conversation with Barack Obama.

Once a close friend of Tunisia’s dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s ruler Hosni Mobarak, and a distant friend of Libya’s dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi (whom he invited for a lavish visit in the fall of 2007) and Syria’s henchman Bashir al-Assad (whom he hosted during Bastille Day celebrations in 2009), he turned against them all as soon as the Arab Spring broke out. He even led the NATO onslaught on Gaddafi that delivered Libya to the local Salafists.

It comes as no surprise that so many conservative voters deserted Sarkozy throughout his term (he lost all intermediate elections, whether local, regional, or European). The hatred he had formerly elicited from so many parts of French society for being conservative or neoconservative, pro-American, and pro-Israel, was later compounded by the disillusionment of his supporters. Indeed, not much was left of him by the second half of his term.

It is all the more remarkable that he was able to come back from the dead and to almost achieve parity on Sunday with François Hollande, the socialist champion. The thanks go to a few advisors — including Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, Minister of the Interior Claude Guéant, and his top political advisor and pollster Patrick Buisson — who convinced Sarkozy to again concentrate on conservative basics.

Hollande is supposed to be a nice, decent man. I must admit I was impressed by him at the French Jewish Representatives Board’s annual dinner last February. He sat rather modestly at a second row table while Sarkozy delivered a well-written but unconvincing speech, and Hollande even shook hands with him afterwards. Hollande was born into a conservative family, opted for socialism out of ambition (like most of the present socialist leaders), graduated brillantly from ENA (the hotbed of French statist aristocracy), worked for Francois Mitterrand personally, became the Socialist Party boss, was bypassed by his ambitious ex-consort Ségolène Royal in 2007, and finally was anointed as the 2012 candidate in the socialist primaries of 2011 — the first American-style primaries ever held in France.

As a political leader, Hollande cannot be distinguished from the French Socialist Party and the French Left at large, which is ten times wilder than the entire Barack Obama administration.

Hollande’s tactics have been, for the best part of his campaign, almost entirely passive. He speculated that Sarkozy was so intensely disliked that all he himself had to do was just be an alternative. This tactic did work quite well throughout the winter. Hollande then met an unexepected challenge: the rapid rise of two strong populist parties.

Front de Gauche (Left Front) is modeled after Die Linke, the German Far Left party founded by Oskar Lafontaine. Front de Gauche federates the former communists with the most leftward elements in the socialist party, and attracts quite a lot of Trotskyites and green militants.

The other party is a reborn National Front that — by supplementing its old anti-immigration rhetoric with a quasi-socialist platform — has been able to take over the working class and parts of the middle class.

Both populist parties owe their sudden fortunes to charismatic new leaders. Jean-Luc Mélanchon of Front de Gauche, a former socialist MP and junior minister, is a robust if sketchy Castro- or Chavez-style orator. His rallies throughout France, complete with red flags and the Bolshevik or Spanish Civil War paraphernalia, have gathered tens of thousands. Marine Le Pen, the daughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, is a much more brilliant and nuanced orator and debater. Mélanchon always wears a business suit with a red tie. Le Pen, a very attractive woman in her forties, wears a business suit as well: a dark blue jacket with dark blue trousers. Le Pen’s equivalent to Mélanchon’s emblematic tie is her face: half-long blond hair and deep blue eyes. While Mélanchon acts as a plebian tribune (his campaign motto was “seize power”), there is something almost royal in Le Pen’s demeanor. Her motto was, quite boldly, “France, of course”.

Even more striking are the political similarities between Front de Gauche and the National Front. Both parties call for a “revolution” against the present elites of France. Both oppose the European Union and the euro. Both insist on national independence and are defiant of NATO. Both claim to be “secular”. Both support a strong state. While Front de Gauche is fiercely pro-Palestinian, the National Front seems to be “neutral” — Ron Paul-style — on Israel, a far cry from the pro-Israel stand of other right-wing populist parties in Europe, not to mention the conservative populists of North America.

The main differences lie with immigration: whereas Front de Gauche praises it, the National Front opposes it. But even so, Marine Le Pen avoids anything in her speeches or in her party’s literature that smells of racism or hatred of Islam as a religion.

Hollande woke up quite late to the two-fold populist threat. In recent weeks, he has been much more active and has engaged in the exacting business of rallies and public speeches and meetings with the average citizen in the street. His activity may have cut Mélanchon’s wings to a point, but not Le Pen’s, who emerged on Sunday as the ballot’s real winner.

The case of François Bayrou, the centrist outsider, is much different. A former minister of Education with strong Christian and peasant roots, Bayrou is concerned with national unity (with himself as the unifier) rather than with revolution. Until 2007, he was the leader of a sizable third party, in between Right and Left. Then most of his centrist allies deserted him to support Sarkozy — and to keep their seats, with conservative support, as MPs or local elected officials. For a short while, pollsters credited him with 13% or even 15% of the national vote in 2012. Now that he has dropped to a frustrating 9%, he must play his last card: join either Hollande or Sarkozy or neither, in the most cautious way.

The first polls, taken right after the first ballot on Sunday night, are rather confusing, yet still they show that Sarkozy stands a chance to win over the Le Pen vote. According to a CSA poll released on Sunday night, 40% of Bayrou’s supporters will settle for Hollande on May 6, along with 27% of Le Pen supporters; Sarkozy will retain 25% of the Bayrou vote and 52% of the Le Pen vote. According to a Louis Harris poll, Hollande will get 38% of the Bayrou voters and just 17% of Le Pen’s, whereas Sarkozy will attract 32% of Bayrou voters and 44% of Le Pen’s. A third poll by firm BVA ascribes 36% of the Bayrou votes and 20% of the Le Pen vote to Hollande; Sarkozy would gather 39% of Bayrou supporters and 57% of Le Pen supporters. Chances are that two weeks of hard campaigning will help Sarkozy make inroads into both camps.

The major task for both the conservatives and the socialists is to woo the National Front voters. Sarkozy has called for “every patriot” to join him on May 6. As for the socialists, they say openly that the Le Pen sympathizers must be “understood” and “won back”. Marine Le Pen is going to hint as to her final stand on the second ballot on May Day. Clearly, she wants to hear from both sides regarding what they are willing to give her. One prize could be an explicit promise to change the electoral law in order to give the National Front full access to Parliament and to other electoral offices.

On the other hand, she would be mistaken to believe that she owns her supporters votes. Many people voted for her not in order to get her elected but just to make it clear to the classic Right that immigration and Islamization are definitely non-starters. Even long-time supporters hate the Left even more that they despise Sarkozy. If she helps Hollande win, she will be seen as a traitor by many of them, especially since the Left will then quite probably win the National Assembly next June, and thus be in control of almost all political powers: the Executive, the Assembly, the Senate, almost all regional councils, most local councils, and the French représentation to the European Parliament.

One party rule by another name.