Monday, May 7, 2012

A Change of French Guard

France has a new President.
Francois Hollande with nearly 52% of the votes defeated the outgoing flamboyant President, Nicolas Sarkozy.
The turning point of the campaign was the TV debate between the two candidates of the final round: Nicolas Sarkozy, the outgoing President and Francois Hollande, the Socialist candidate. It was watched by more than 19 million people in France (on a population of 63 million).
After the debate, The Independent in London summed it up: “something unusual happened. François Hollande became the president; Nicolas Sarkozy became the challenger.”
In fact for the last few months, Sarkozy’s problem was that he was in the challenger’s position, not a single survey poll having credited him with figures allowing him to spend five more years in the Elysée Palace.
While some of Sarkozy’s friends had boasted that he would "tear Hollande to shreds", it did not happen and the UMP’s (Union for a Popular Movement) candidate had to be more and more aggressive, with Hollande playing “Mr. Cool”.
Between the two rounds, a blogger rightly analyzed: “Now Sarkzoy has to wake up those who did not vote, activate their fears and harden his stance against Hollande.” The outgoing President was condemned to conduct a virulent campaign, and by contrast, it reinforced the coolness and peacefulness side of Hollande’s campaign à la Obama (“The Change is for Now” is Hollande’s motto).
During the 3 hour debate, a jumpy Sarkozy, with his usual tics and body movements, called Hollande a ‘liar’ several times; especially when the candidates did not agree on figures about employment or immigration. This did not help his image.
Then, Hollande used what the Americans call a ‘zinger’. The dictionary gives an example: “she tried to think of some killer of an argument, a real zinger that would disarm all opposition”.
He started a long tirade (more than 3 minutes, each second of the debater being rigorously counted) in a regal tone (or more correctly a presidential voice): “Moi, President de la République, je …(I, President of the Republic, I…). He repeated 16 times the zinger: “I will do this…, I will not do this…” taking examples of actions, decisions or declarations when Sarkozy had obviously been wrong (like for example interfering in the judicial system or not being above petty politics).
That was it.
The most surprising perhaps, was that Sarkozy did not interrupt Hollande; he listened silently. It was as if he was at the end of a too long journey during which he had relentlessly spent his energies ‘to save France’ from a fate similar to Greece.
Hollande had won the last round of a fight which lasted for several months and which should give a new direction to France, in internal affairs at least, if not in external ones.
But can it really be different?
The style, no doubt will be different. It is ‘Sarko’s style’ more than his political decisions which have been rejected by the voters on Sunday.
The first round of the French 2012 presidential elections held on April 22 did not bring any great surprise. Francois Hollande, passed the post first with 27.6% of the votes, followed by the seating President, Nicolas Sarkozy who obtained 26.1%; the third contender was far-right Marine Le Pen with 17.9%. Communist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon who was predicted to reach the 16% bar, only got 11%, nearly 7 points behind Le Pen.
The international press mainly commented on the good score of Marine Le Pen, the daughter of the veteran extreme-right provocateur. A few months ago, she thought that she could topple Sarkozy and reach the second round; she nonetheless did well, sending shivering waves down the spine of the pollsters.
Interestingly, the rightist party always gets more votes than forecast in the surveys for the simple reason that many voters do not want it to be known that they support the National Front and its xenophobic policies.
One remarkable feature of the first round was the 80% turnabout.
Let us recall that the President of the French Republic is elected for five years with extended powers in the fields of defence and foreign affairs and some control over a Prime Minister answerable to the Parliament.
A common feature is that most of the electors very much doubted whether the future President would be able to solve the economic problems facing the country; this was reflected in Round One’s results: for the first time, the outgoing President did not get the top score. Another characteristic of these 2012 elections is the boredom of the campaign.
The problem is that nobody has the panacea to sort out the economic and social problems facing the country. More than 75 % of the French believe today that globalization is something negative and that the concurrence from countries like India or China will further affect employment. People are also disappointed by the role of the European Union in national affairs. Many like Le Pen believe that a solution would be to walk out of an EU, too bureaucratic in their eyes.
Traditionally, France does not witness massive shifts of votes between the two rounds and the forecast before the first round usually come true two weeks later: it is why it was nearly impossible for Sarkozy, the outgoing President to retain his job on May 6.
A day after the first round, Le Monde titled, “Hollande and Sarkozy in quest of the National Front votes”; the centrist newspaper tried to analyze how the two contenders could manage to convince those who voted for Le Pen to shift their preference to their own candidature. It did not work. Marine Le Pen called for ‘blank’ votes.
The problem of Sarkozy was that once a hyper-President, he has partially lost his shine. He even had to apologize for his ‘people’ (Page Three) period during the first years of his Presidency and the rude words he used against some of his countrymen. The (in)famous “Casse toi, pauvre con” (get out of my way, asshole) remained particularly stuck to his image. Further, less and less electors believe that he can deliver fresh miracles despite his hyperactivity.
One journalist who covered the election explained that the Sarkozy style of functioning has ‘stressed’ the French. Though his image of a man in a hurry and ‘doing things’ had fascinated during the first years of his mandate, many are now tired with his ‘hyper’ aspect. The mottos of Sarkozy’s election campaign however remained, “Only I can get France out of the crisis” “I am fighting for a ‘France Forte’ (powerful)”.
It is not that Hollande was an exciting postulant; further he does not have the charm and the charisma of his ex-companion, Ségolène Royal, Sarkozy’s rival in 2007; but the Socialist candidate has the advantage of incumbency. This does not make the campaign thrilling.
Will Hollande be unable to fulfill his promises of creating 60,000 teaching posts, partially roll back the pension age from 62 to 60 and tax the rich, charging them an income-tax rate upto 75% of their revenue? It has to be seen.
One issue which came up during the two rounds is France’s relation with Germany. What about the Merkozy couple? Will we see the emergence of a Merhollande? It may take some time.
The German Chancellor's agenda of forcing austerity programs all over Europe is not acceptable to François Hollande.
One of the key questions for the financial markets is the relations between France and Germany. Sarkozy's relationship with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor has not always been easy, but it worked and gave a lead to Europe when the Euro Zone was in a bad shape.
What may aggravate the situation is the fact that the German Chancellor has blatantly sided with the outgoing President during the campaign. Even after the first round, putting on a brave face, her spokesman declared: “the Chancellor continues to support President Sarkozy.”
This has certainly not been appreciated in Hollande’s camp which believes that Germany places too much emphasis on budget cuts, and not enough on national growth. Hollande has often stated that when he becomes President, he will put an end to “austerity everywhere, austerity that brought desperation to people throughout Europe".
But it is easier said than done.
Can he really assure the French of a brighter future?
In a few years from now, we will know.

No comments: