Gone Fishing, Been Caught: The Presidential Election in France

Today we carry a guest post by Dr David Chuter on the coming French presidential elections.  Dr Chuter worked extensively with the French political system during his government career, including three years in the French Defence Ministry, and has written widely on issues related to modern French political history, especially in the security area. He is also an expert on a wide range of matters relating to the security sector, war crimes, and political violence.  He retired from the Ministry of Defence in 2008 and is now a writer, lecturer, and consultant on security issues based in Paris.  He has written four books, most recently “Governing and Managing the Defence Sector” (2011). His personal website is www.davidchuter.com

“ If Sarkozy is re-elected” said a friend recently “it’ll be a disaster for France. But if the only alternative is Hollande ….” Followed an untranslatable Gallic shrug. A lot of people in France think like that these days, and indeed victory by apathy may be the only realistic strategy Sarkozy has left. The elections themselves have been carefully timed to fall in the Easter holidays, when many of those least likely to vote for him (the young, couples with children, anyone who works in education) will be away, and when much of his core vote (the elderly and the prosperous) are assumed to be around to be mobilised. Meanwhile, according to the latest polls, about half of potential voters in the lower socio-economic groups may not even bother, seeing no point in voting for anyone. That may do the trick. But if it doesn’t, we may be on the verge of something really spectacular.

France has not escaped the general lurch to the right in politics over the last generation. Unusually, though, in the case of Sarkozy’s UMP, they have met something even nastier, coming the other way. For decades, about ten per cent of the electorate have voted for the Front national in the first round, of elections, and abstained sulkily in the second. This is the un-accommodated France of bigots and xenophobes, Catholic fundamentalists and nostalgics for Vichy and the Algérie française. But more recently the party has picked up voters from the industrial working class, stranded by the decline of the Communist Party and abandoned by the Blair-ising Socialists. It was here that Sarkozy went fishing for support in 2007, and the extra votes from his mixture of Muslim-bashing and economic populism were the main factor behind his relatively narrow victory.

Sarkozy and his long-time, widely distrusted shadow, now Interior Minister, Claude Guéant, have been playing the immigration and law and order cards ever since. But the FN, under their new and telegenic leader Marine Le Pen, have been playing them better. Sarkozy has been forced to follow suit, and, as the election approaches, there is little to actually choose between their respective political discourses. Only by matching the FN’s extremist rhetoric, Sarkozy reasons, can he appropriate enough of their votes to be re-elected, given how unpopular he is in the country as a whole.

But the strategy does not seem to be working. Indeed, Sarkozy has actually succeeded in alienating much moderate right-wing opinion, while strengthening and legitimising the FN itself. Opinion polls (many carefully unpublished) put Sarkozy and Le Pen essentially level in first-round preferences, and Sarkozy cannot criticise his rival’s ideas because he is trying to convince her supporters that he shares them. To which Le Pen has always had a ready reply: why vote for the photocopy when you can have the original?

The French political and media classes, obsessed until now by François Hollande’s hand gestures and the loss of the triple-A rating, have only just began to notice that Sarkozy might possibly be eliminated in the first round. If that happened, the over-used term “political earthquake” might for once actually be justified.

Even many of Sarkozy’s supporters now think that he could lose to Hollande in a straight fight in the second round. And François Bayrou, who has never abandoned his dream of being the Presidential candidate of the Right, has been spotted prowling the corridors brandishing a knife he is ready to lend to anyone willing to stick it in Sarkozy’s back. Either of these possibilities would set off an epic settling of scores among a Right whose principal figures often cannot bear to be in the same room as each other. But if Sarkozy loses in the first round, the ensuing bloodbath could destroy the Right for a generation. Hence the Machiavellian advice I gave my friend. If you really think Hollande will win the first round, which seems likely, then vote for Le Pen.