France under Its New President
Ramsay, Allan, Contemporary Review
THE French went to the polls four times in the first six months of this year, in May to elect their President and in June their members of parliament, deputies, twice for each event. Understandably the turnout for the first was higher than for the second, because it was more important but also because enthusiasm was beginning to wear thin and the weather was lamentable. The vote is a right about which the individual French man or woman is extremely jealous. On both occasions it was impressive to see the long queues outside French embassies and consulates around the world, leaving one to wonder whether the same phenomenon might occur among British expatriates on the Costa del Sol. The French might execrate all politicians but, as good republicans, they have fought for the right to vote and see no reason why living abroad should be a disqualification. The sense of privacy which determines so much of French behaviour extends to his vote and an individual's choice remains a close secret even after the voting slip has been dropped into the ballot box. It tends to add an unusual degree of opacity to all elections. It is not easy going for the pollster.
Nevertheless the Presidential elections were the most polled in history. They were also dull; there was little spice and no scandal and neither contestant was of a kind to grip the imagination. Sarkozy, the incumbent President, trying hard to avoid following Giscard d'Estaing into the humiliation of being voted out of office after only one term, was probably beaten before the start and privately might well have admitted it. His unpopularity was undeserved but it was real enough, for reasons explained in an earlier article (see 'France's New President', Contemporary Review, Autumn 2007). He fought hard but without obvious conviction--at least not obvious to this observer--and certainly no passion. It might well be the case that he was exhausted, physically and emotionally, as a result of the constant and unremitting pressure to which the euro crisis had exposed him throughout the previous year. But party scandals, linked to the Bettencourt affair (concerning several allegations that the richest woman in Europe was giving secret donations to Sarkozy and his allies) and the sale of submarines to Pakistan, might have helped to spoil the picture even though neither appears to implicate him. But in the French mind he will always be the 'bling-bling' President, linked to the super rich and enjoying their hospitality, an image which his new wife, Carla Bruni, ex-model and chanteuse, tended to foster in the public mind though she behaved with exemplary discretion throughout his presidency. One sensed that the election was all over bar the shouting after Sarkozy's defeat in the first round, when the party heavyweights deserted him to confer in Bordeaux under his Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe.
The new President, Francois Hollande, gained 52 per cent of the votes against Sarkozy's 48, out of a turnout of 83 per cent, not an especially impressive margin in the circumstances. He might not have won against an incumbent with fewer built-in handicaps than Sarkozy, for the result was essentially anti-Sarkozy rather than pro-Hollande. Both candidates looked as if they were about to come adrift at one point mid-campaign when, notwithstanding the urgency of the problems confronting France, they appeared to be trying to outbid each other over the labelling of halal meat and driving lessons for adolescents. Both also sought accommodation with rival groups within their own political spectrum, Sarkozy poaching on the periphery of National Front territory and Hollande on the New Left's. Neither achieved any noticeable advantage and both those parties benefited from the patronage, the National Front registering a record figure of 17 per cent in the first round against the New Left's 11. Only the National Front later repeated its success in the parliamentary elections, an indication of both the fluidity of public opinion and its low boredom threshold. …