This post was written two weeks ago on 21st April. Anyone looking at it now will realise that it has been superseded by the news at 20h00 6th May that François Hollande is most likely to be France’s next president. Bonne chance, M. Hollande. I don’t envy you the job.
I very rarely pronounce on political matters on this blog. It’s normally the quickest way to get the green ink brigade going. And I don’t have the vote anyway, not being French. Even so, it can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that tomorrow (Sunday 22nd April) is the first round of the presidential elections in France, which are now held every five years. So here’s the view from La Lune.
We have experienced three presidential elections as residents of France. First there was 2002, when Lionel Jospin, former Prime Minister and Socialist Party candidate was knocked out in the first round. The highest level of abstentions in a first round under the 5th Republic characterised that election – 28.4%. That left sitting President Jacques Chirac and Front National candidate Jean-Marie le Pen slugging it out in the second round. No contest. Nonetheless, le Pen got around 20% of the vote. But the socialists had to grit their teeth and vote for Chirac.
Next up, 2007. For the first time ever a woman, Segolène Royal the socialist candidate, got to the second round. It was a close call between her and Nicolas Sarkozy but he pipped her at the post. Only 16.2% of voters abstained from voting in the first round that year, a measure of how much more fired up people were.
Fast forward to 2012. Ten candidates are in the offing but there are two front-runners: incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP – right wing) and François Hollande (socialist; former partner of Segolène Royal), who has led in the polls for the past 18 months. Unless something momentous and unforeseen happens, the second round will be between these two and the pollsters predict that we will have a Président Hollande on 6th May. Stranger things have happened, though. According to the pre-election polls, Jospin should have beaten Chirac in 2002.
Presidential candidates are required to have the backing and signatures of a minimum of 500 maires. Marine le Pen (daughter of Jean-Marie, Front National) struggled to get them, like her father before her. But she managed to squeak under the barrier by the deadline. A variety of other candidates threw in the towel at an early stage this time, e.g. centrist Hervé Morin, aged 50, who claimed to have been present at the Normandy landings in 1944.
If there is no outright winner in the first round (at least 50% plus one vote), the two candidates with the highest number of votes go through to the second round a fortnight later. The presidential elections in the 5th Republic have always run to two rounds, although Charles de Gaulle won 44% in the first round in 1965. There has been only one socialist president during the 5th Republic (the current French constitution from 1958) – François Mitterand, known familiarly as ‘Tonton’ (uncle).
A damp squib?
For me, this presidential election has been characterised by a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the French, at least around here. This is despite the fact that most of the candidates have claimed to have ‘le peuple’ at the heart of their campaigns: probably the most bandied about phrase of this election. The candidates’ rallies are choreographed set pieces that don’t, in my view, present the full picture. Whatever you might think of Sarkozy and his record since 2007, the issues that any incoming president faces are difficult – intractable, even. No one expects very much to change, regardless of who gets in.
You have to ask yourself why anyone would want the job. François Hollande, in the early days of his candidacy, tried to distinguish himself by saying he was ‘normal’. He soon dropped that. No one who wants to be president is normal, anyway. And Sarkozy wants a second dose, although he seemed very low-key to me when he appeared on the TF1 news a few days ago.
So the tone this time seems muted. I will be very interested to see the actual turnout figures. In some countries, Belgium for example, it is a legal requirement to vote; you are fined if you don’t, unless you have an overriding excuse. In France, you can stay away with impunity. My guess is that a reasonable proportion will do that this time and the pollsters are predicting an abstention rate of 23-30% tomorrow.
French law says that no media can publish any early results from polling stations, or exit polls, until 20h00 on Sunday when all the polling stations have closed. Certain media in Belgium and Switzerland, which are not covered by French law, are planning to publish early results from 18h30 tomorrow. Twitterers will no doubt be Tweeting away before 20h00. Just how many people can the Commission des Sondages (Polls Commission) prosecute, anyway?
The French will be going to the polls again in June, this time to elect députés (members of parliament) to l’Assemblée nationale.
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