Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Ségolène, président!

No big surprises in the first round of the French presidential election yesterday, but the result was promising for Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal, who got a larger percentage in this round than had been expected. It was also interesting to see how poorly Le Pen did with just 10%, following the mini crisis that ensued in 2002 when he got past the first round.

Jean-Marie Le Pen is a far-right French nationalist who exploits Xenophobia and anti-semitism. 2002 saw a record low turnout in the first round and this, coupled with a splintering of the left, allowed Le-Pen to squeak past the first round and get into the second, in which the top two candidates compete. This result shocked and horrified the French people, and this led to the bizarre situation of the left holding rallies and urging people to vote for Jacques Chirac, who is a conservative, which they did in enormous numbers.

It would appear that the French people learned their lesson from that incident. This year saw a record turnout of 85 percent, the highest since the early days of the republic. When the US struggles to get past 50 percent for a presidential election and past 30 percent for a mid-term, 85 percent is definitely impressive.

So now it will come down in two weeks to Nicolas Sarkozy on the right, who has promised to trim French social benefits and seems likely to foster closer ties with the US and not be EU-friendly, versus Ségolène Royal on the left, who wants to stress education and get young people jobs without dismantling the French social system.

The French public doesn't seem terribly enthusiastic about either candidate. Sarkozy isn't the most likable character, but on the other hand it’s hard for me to get excited about Royal. I mean, did anyone else see her victory speech last night? She looked amazing, but she was so stiff, so dispassionate. Cut to Sarkozy’s speech, and he’s absolutely beaming and overflowing with energy. It’s clear he’s wanted this from the moment he was born, and considering that the one thing everyone wants in France right now is change, it seems logical that they would be looking for someone with a very defined sense of purpose and energy. It’s hard to get that from Royal.

Sarkozy get 31.1% and Royal got 25.8%, and under the French system since neither got an absolute majority, the election goes to a second round between the top two. The next two weeks are going to be critical in the two candidates setting the tone, and they’re going to need to address issues that weren’t touched upon during the first round’s month of campaigning. The two big issues of foreign policy, the US and the EU, haven’t really been discussed at all, and obviously I’m interested to hear what each candidate has to say about each. Sarkozy will most likely get the people who voted for Le Pen in the first round, but to do so he has to project a tough law-and-order and anti-immigrant stance (ironic since he himself is the son of a Hungarian immigrant). Royal’s percentage may look low now, but it’s assumed that most of the vote for the centrist candidate, François Bayrou, who came in third at 19%, will go to her. But that could be dependant on whether or not he endorses her, which is as yet unclear. Both candidates have a lot of work to do. In order to win, Sarkozy will need to get all of the Le Pen vote and half of the Bayrou vote. For Royal to win, she will need either all of the Bayrou vote, or hope that the Le Pen voters don’t go to the polls and she can get at least half of the Bayrou vote.

What’s interesting is that so many French people are talking about “personality” in this race, probably because the two candidates are so strikingly different. Sarkozy is short, frenetic, jittery, and often speaks off-the-cuff and causes offense. Royal is poised, elegant and stoic, and plays up her maternal instincts such as care for education and social causes. As opposed to other Big 8 women leaders such as Angela Merkel in Germany and Margaret Thatcher in the UK, Royal has not tried to mitigate the fact that she is a woman by adopting a tough, hawkish personality. Indeed were she elected she would not only be France’s first female president, she would be the first non-conservative female leader elected to the leadership of a G8 country. Can you imagine Merkel, Royal and Hillary at the G8 summit in 2009? I can’t think of three more different women!

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