France's New President

Article excerpt

NICOLAS Sarkozy, Secretary General of the UMP, succeeded President Jacques Chirac, as President of France on 16 May, becoming the sixth President of the Fifth Republic and the thirty-seventh overall. He defeated his Socialist Party (PS) rival, Mme Segolene Royal, in the second ballot on 6 May, gaining 53 per cent of votes cast to her 47 per cent. This was a slightly higher figure than he gained in the first round a fortnight earlier for which there were twelve candidates, including one from the fishing, shooting and hunting constituency, not red-coated squires and Sloanes in Barbours as in Britain, but village postmen, shopkeepers and artisans whose slogan, La rusticite d'abord, was not enough to win more than 1.4 per cent of the votes cast, less than the 4.2 per cent registered by his predecessor in the 2002 elections. All minority parties fared as badly. France's is an overwhelmingly urban population and every year that passes, like the election issues themselves, emphasises this.

The election was the culmination of what is, by any measurement, an inordinately long process in which neither of the two main candidates started as outright favourite. It began when M. Sarkozy was elected to the Secretary Generalship of the UMP over a year ago. President Chirac did not like this since he had other ideas about a successor. He would have preferred M. Juppe or M. de Villepin but Juppe's time is over and Villepin has the wrong profile. M. Sarkozy was not to be deflected by any of the tempting baits Chirac offered him. Mme. Royal had a similarly unenthusiastic endorsement by her party leadership. She effectively imposed herself on the PS through a combination of populism, based on her Poitou-Charente constituency, and skilful use of the Internet through her website, Desirs de I' avenir. (The title reflects the roseate glow of what people think Mme. Royal means by 'participitative democracy'.) She thus neutralised the Secretary General of the PS, her own partner, M. Francois Hollande, and more politically significant figures like M. Fabius and M. Strauss-Kahn. The former party leader M. Jospin's endorsement of Mme. Royal--the ultimate benediction--was late, reluctant and lukewarm. He took a less active part in the campaign than the former President of the EU commission, Jacques Delors. Both candidates, more especially Mme. Royal, might thus be said to have succeeded in spite of rather than because of their respective parties, though M. Sarkozy had the advantage of a more coherent and coordinated party support once he became their candidate, something which Mme. Royal never enjoyed.

Opinion polls were frequent. M. Sarkozy's campaign team acknowledged that they used them as part of their weaponry. Mme. Royal never enjoyed the advantage of leading in the polls once the campaign really got going, even though she never trailed by much. Her support was strongest among the disenfranchised, perhaps the only luxury they had. When Le Monde canvassed the down and outs in Marseilles, they opted unanimously for her though it must have been small comfort for their heroine since none of them had a vote. The opinion polls showed very little variation in the underlying dispositions of the public until M. Bayrou entered the lists. What he seems to have done is to have absorbed most of the large element of 'don't knows' built into any French presidential election, this one perhaps more than most. There are reasons for this which are addressed below but 'don't know' in French political language does not mean 'don't care'. The French voter values his vote and weighs it carefully, he wants to get it right and his mood changes. Had the elections taken place in January Mme. Royal might have won, playing, as one commentator put it, on the French yearning for a state of permanent maternage. Her own icon is St Joan of Arc; but since de Gaulle also invoked her it proves nothing beyond the appeal of the eternal feminine and the ambivalence this arouses in the French male. …