France’s elections

The first round of French presidential elections has been disappointing, though not entirely unexpected, for President Nicolas Sarkozy and his party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). Public opinion polls have for some time now been showing an uncomfortable level of disappointment with the French president, and he in turn has been trying to appease his natural supporters on the right by strengthening his anti-immigration policies in particular, no doubt in an effort to purchase some of the more extreme right support. He entered the presidential stakes in 2007 leaning to the right, and at that time it served him well against the socialist party candidate Ms Ségolène Royal.

Unfortunately for him, this strategy has not worked on this occasion. He has not been able to outgun the more aggressive rightists of the National Front, whose candidate Ms Marine Le Pen (daughter of that party’s founder) has obtained a strong 18.2% of the vote. Sarkozy, attaining 27.1%, has been pipped at the polls by the Socialist party’s Francois Hollande’s 28.5% on a voter turnout in the high 70 to 80%.

As a matter of interest, in the French Caribbean dependencies or regions, the turnout was much lower, with the National Front not making any substantial showing, and the socialist candidate situated well in front.  In Martinique, Guadeloupe and Guyane (French Guiana), on an average turnout of approximately 50%, Hollande obtained almost 52%, Sarkozy nearly 27% and Le Pen just 22% of the vote. This suggests a substantial alienation from the electoral process, a dissatisfaction with Sarkozy, and some sense of hope in Hollande and the French Socialist party.

So in the French metropole the right wing seems to hold a decisive balance, though the remaining  middle of the road candidates have a possibility of being influential, give the narrow difference between the two main contenders. Sarkozy had for some time recognized a certain swing to the right in the country, particularly on issues relating to immigration, the influence of Islam among the Arab populations (deemed to be anti-French culture), and some sentiment on reducing the role of the state in the economy in these times of economic difficulty.

The French economy, like other European economies except Germany, has had minimal growth in recent years –  0.1%, 2.5% and 1.5%  in 2008, 2009, 2010 respectively –  and the signs have been that for some time now, President Sarkozy was adopting the view that a diminishing of the role of the state, and therefore state employment, is the best way of regaining fiscal balance. In this, he has had a strong partner in Chancellor Merkel of Germany. And as is evident at present, both of them have tried hard to enforce this so-called austerity view on the rest of Europe, particularly in Greece, Spain and Portugal, partially gaining support at the level of the IMF.

It was, and is, unlikely that the French working and middle classes would readily accept this remedy,  that seems popularly unacceptable not only in France but in other European countries. As if to strengthen this view, on the very French election day, the Dutch Prime Minister felt constrained to offer his government’s resignation after he failed to get parliamentary approval for a fixed limit on an appropriate budgetary deficit level, as agreed at the level of the European Union. And in that case too, it was the right wing, similarly anti-immigration part of the government’s coalition, that revolted and forced the Prime Minister’s hand, in spite of the fact that the Netherlands has been able to maintain a relatively low national debt level.

So in France, it appears that from the perspective of the moderate right, the more frenetic right would seem at this time to be holding a virtual hammer over their heads. In that context, it seems that President Sarkozy has for some time felt that losses of support from public opinion on domestic issues, could be balanced by a vigorous external relations policy attractive to the French nationalists in, and beyond, his own UMP party base. And it will be recalled that he, along with the British conservative government (in increasingly similar domestic difficulty deriving from its economic policy) took the lead in the prosecution of war against Gaddafi in Libya, and then undertook a French intervention in it former colony, the Ivory Coast, in the midst of a civil war there.

The French President has, however, obviously been unable to steal the wilder right’s clothes on this issue, even when coupled with his government’s legislation on immigration, and on the right to wear traditional clothing masking the faces of Arab women. So it seems that Ms Le Pen remains holding the whip over Sarkozy’s head, and the choice is hers as to how she wishes to wield her party’s support in the next round of the election on May 5. There can be little doubt that Sarkozy will be trying hard to penetrate the National Front’s support, given that the French system mandates the withdrawal of the other candidates beyond the leading two, in the second round.

An aspect of Sarkozy’s initial defeat, and of the prospects for his UMP party, is its consequences for wider European Union economic policy. Sarkozy along with Dutch Prime Minister Rutte, has been a faithful ally of Chancellor Merkel in holding the line that only a decisive period of austerity, and persistent maintenance of a targeted budgetary deficit level, can achieve the goal of budgetary balance and resumption of economic growth in EU countries presently in financial difficulty. The Socialist Party’s contender Hollande, on the other hand, has maintained that policies that will induce expansion (deficit financing) are to be preferred, and that if elected he would “reorient Europe on the path of growth and development.”

The wider picture then, is that if Hollande is elected President, there could be a collision between France and Germany, with a German Chancellor unwilling to yield her ground. The implication is that this situation could upset the hard fought consensus on EU recession policy, lead to an unravelling of the policy being undertaken particularly in Spain, Greece and Portugal where there is substantial popular opposition to it, and to disorder in the European camp.

So Sarkozy is likely to be appealing to the right and centrists to prevent what could be a kind of European tragedy and loss of focus and legitimacy in current international economic policymaking. The problem for him, however, is that the French electorate has been unwilling, so far, to let external matters interfere with their domestic preoccupations. Convincing them that the fate of European economic policymaking is virtually identifiable, in this globalised world and a highly integrated EU economic system, with French economic policy and stability, is certainly a trick that he would wish to perform.

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