Analysis: French presidential election 2012

Hollande, Sarkozy struggle to inspire as French presidential vote draws near

Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

The two leading candidates in France’s presidential election both claimed that over 100,000 people turned out for their final rallies on Sunday before next week’s first round of voting. But it’s not the party faithful who interest Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande now. It’s the 29 per cent of voters who are undecided or might not even vote at all.


“The bigger the crowd, the bigger the lie and the worse the disillusion in general,” commented a bitter François Bayrou, the liberal candidate who managed to attract a miserable 2,000 to his rally in Marseille.

His turnout was dwarfed not only by the big two but also by hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Tens of thousands turned out for his march and rally on the same day in the same city – his third show of strength following equally large mobilisations in Paris and Toulouse.

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But for the leading candidates, the crowds were for the cameras. They hope that TV coverage will create a buzz in the country’s living rooms that will last until next Sunday.

Many French voters have complained that the campaign has failed to address their real concerns, first and foremost jobs and incomes in these uncertain economic times.

With most candidates implying that hard times are ahead with their pledges to balance the budget and the right taking a mid-campaign detour via immigration, Islam and law and order, a record number of voters have told the pollsters that they either haven’t made their minds up or may not bother to go to the polls.

The danger is even greater since the first round takes place during the schools’ spring break, meaning that a fair chunk of the electorate is likely to be several kilometres from the polling booths where it should be casting its ballots.

It’s usually the left that suffers most from abstentions, so Hollande faces the biggest challenge.

Apart from a brief dip last week, possibly thanks to Mohamed Merah’s killing spree in south-west France, his poll showings have been ahead of Sarkozy’s in both the first and second rounds.

But there are no guarantees that he will get bums off seats on the day, leaving the result far less predictable than it at first seems.

There is one candidate who has inspired his supporters “to dream”, as the French like to say. Mélenchon has risen from about six per cent to between 13 and 14 per cent, giving voice to the anti-capitalist mood that has seen left-winger George Galloway elected in a British by-election last month and confidence in Greece’s mainstream parties collapse.

Sarkozy and his supporters hope that his vote will eat into Hollande’s support, while Hollande obviously wants those ballots to be cast for him, leading to everyone being uncharacteristically nice to Jean-Luc and relatively nasty to the markets over the last few days.

Mélenchon argues that he has not reduced Hollande’s support but motivated voters who found the Socialist campaign too tepid. Broadly speaking, the opinion polls seem to bear that argument out – the Socialist’s share has stayed at 26-30 per cent while the Left Front man’s has doubled.

But that’s assuming all the promises turn into votes and Hollande’s electorate may prove particularly difficult to mobilise.

In 2002 the hard left did not unite around one candidate, as it has this year. Nevertheless, the combined share of the left of the left was nearly 14 per cent, less than three points behind Socialist Lionel Jospin. 

That meant that the second-placed candidate was the far right’s Jean-Marie Le Pen. And that led to incumbent mainstream right-winger Jacques Chirac winning by a majority of near-North Korean proportions.

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The Sarkozy camp, which has echoed much of the rhetoric of Le Pen’s Front National (FN) during this campaign, would obviously love a repeat in 2012. A face-off with Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, who has stepped into her father’s shoes, would guarantee a Sarkozy victory.

Not all the FN's support shows up in the opinion polls,  but Le Pen seems not to have experienced the leap she had hoped for and she is currently vying for third place with Mélenchon.

Perversely, that could work in Hollande’s favour. Sarkozy’s dream is the left’s nightmare and many Mélenchon voters’ resolve may weaken next Sunday morning if they wake up with a nagging fear of a 2002 rerun.

So nerves must be more than usually stretched in all the main candidates’ camps this week. If the electorate finds the 2012 presidential election campaign boring, we can be sure that the candidates don’t.

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