French Socialists top TV ratings but can they beat Sarkozy?

Reuters/Stephane Mahe

The TV debate between France’s aspiring Socialist presidential candidates may have beaten Masterchef in Thursday evening’s ratings, but the party still has its work cut out to ensure victory in the election next year.



Five million viewers watched the six would-be candidates politely disagree on secondary matters of policy, making the debate Thursday’s most-watched broadcast, beating the popular cookery programme Masterchef.

It comes in the run-up to France’s first-ever US-style primary election, a practise adopted by the Socialists in the apparent belief that American equals modern but not imitated by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP or any other party.

Reuters/Patrick Kovarick

But the debate lacked the thrills and spills of US pre-primary debates. The American body politic tends to forgive and forget harsh words spoken before parties have decided their candidates, as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton could testify. The Socialists very sensibly assumed that neither the UMP nor the French media would be inclined to follow that example.

What is more, the party’s manifesto is already published and all candidates are bound to defend it, leaving them the limited freedom to hint which policies they would prioritise and/or quietly forget about if elected.

If the opinion polls are to be believed, François Hollande and Martine Aubry are way ahead of the field and well placed to defeat Sarkozy.

So, while Arnaud Montebourg was there to show that the party has a left wing, Manuel Valls to show it has a right wing, Ségolène Royal to show that old candidates never die and Jean-Michel Baylet to show that you don’t have to be a party member to participate, all eyes were on Hollande and Aubry.

Their only real disagreement was over nuclear power, with Aubry saying that, in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster, France should phase it out completely, while Hollande only advocated a reduction in the current 75 per cent share of the country’s electricity produced by nuclear power.

The UMP’s reaction to the debate was contradictory, on the one hand dismissing it as much ado about nothing, on the other feigning shock at suggestions that nuclear power might be scrapped or cannabis legalised, “given the ravages it makes on people’s health”, as party secretary Jean-François Copé put it.

Can the Socialists follow their success in the ratings with success in the polling booths?

Sarkozy’s popularity has slumped as the economic crisis has hit employment and purchasing power but that has not been to the Socialists’ exclusive benefit.

Despite the government’s apparent obsession with law and order, Islam and immigration, many supporters of the far-right Front National (FN) who voted for him in 2006 feel he has not delivered on his campaign rhetoric on those issues.

That has pushed new FN leader Marine le Pen’s ratings up, although she no longer looks likely to make it to the second round of the presidential contest as some polls indicated she could do earlier this year.

Ironically, if they could be sure to make it to the second round, both the Socialists and Sarkozy would surely be delighted to face le Pen. When Jacques Chirac had a face-off with her father, Jean-Marie, in 2002 he won 82 per cent of the vote, a level of popularity he has never attained since, not even today when many French people look back on his presidency with nostalgia in comparison to Sarkozy’s rule.

The still very un-American second round of the presidential election proper complicates matters enormously. At least 15 candidates will stand in the first round. They will range from the far left to the far right, passing by self-styled “Centrists” Jean-Louis Borloo, until recently a minister in the Sarkozy government, and François Bayrou, a bitter enemy of the incumbent.

So the two who make it through to the decider have to win the votes of those who have fallen by the way. Will le Pen voters boycott Sarkozy or will they back him to keep the left out? Will the far left declare the Socialists’ economic policies identical to the right’s? What will Borloo and Bayrou’s backers do?

The system gives small parties an influence out of proportion to their size and means that the bigger ones must adapt their discourse to attract the political minorities that could provide the deciding votes.

At present all opinion polls show that either Hollande or Aubry would beat Sarkozy. But the campaign has 219 days to run and the president and his allies are unlikely to miss any tricks in their efforts to prevent what would be only the second-ever left-wing victory in a French presidential election.


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