French Presidential Election in Review
At some point last week, I was considering writing a preview of the 1st round of the French Presidential Election. Most of the speculation I saw considered Socialist candidate Francois Hollande the frontrunner for the first round of voting, and also to defeat incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in the second round 2 weeks later. Hollande would be the first Socialist president in 17 years, and only the second one since World War 2. More interestingly, much of the leftist blogosphere was abuzz with speculation that the Communist candidate Jean-Luc Melanchon would finish in a strong 3rd place, relegating the anti-immigrant National Front candidate Marine Le Pen to a weak 4th. In my hypothetical column from last week I was going to excitedly report on the strong support of Mr. Melanchon, note how a wide swath of the French populace was rejecting the center through their support of Mr. Melanchon and Ms. Le Pen, and argue that Melanchon’s apparent triumph over Ms. Le Pen illustrated that the people of France had moved beyond petty identity politics and instead embraced Mr. Melanchon’s form of left wing populism over Ms. Le Pen’s neo-fascist right wing populism.
This point was even more remarkable because of last month’s Toulouse shooting. To review: French Muslim Mohammed Merah killed 7 people in March supposedly in retaliation for France’s involvement in the Afghanistan War. The shootings briefly gave Mr. Sarkozy a small lead in the polls, and would seem to strengthen Ms. Le Pen’s anti-immigrant argument. That the French people were seemingly able to rise above the politics of fear in the wake of a tragedy seemed to indicate a national bravery and a recognition of the real roots of the economic problems facing France.
Well, It’s a good thing I didn’t write that article, because the French people gave us the exact opposite result in Sunday’s vote. It wasn’t Mr. Melanchon that finished in a strong 3rd, but Ms. Le Pen who garnered 18% of the vote, the highest total ever for the National Front. Mr. Melanchon finished a weak 4th with 11%. Mr. Hollande got about 29% and Mr. Sarkozy got about 27% and they will face off in 2 weeks. Despite the fact that the right-wing candidates got a higher percentage of the vote, Mr. Hollande is still the front runner. Sarkozy only wins about 50-60% of Ms. Le Pen’s vote according to polls, and Ms. Le Pen has spoken harshly about Mr. Sarkozy. She considers him to be a part of the classical liberal elite, and Mr. Sarkozy will have to figure out how to appeal to Ms. Le Pen’s voters without alienating the center of his coalition. Further, Ms. Le Pen has a vested interest in Mr. Sarkozy losing; she wants his coalition to implode and hers to become the ascendant voice of the right wing. In contrast, Mr. Melanchon told his supporters to unconditionally support Mr. Hollande in the runoff.
The dichotomy between Ms .Le Pen and Mr. Melanchon has been one of the defining features of international politics for quite some time. Both tap into resentment among the lower classes. The right wing blames it on ethnic minorities or some other boogeyman while the left wing points out serious inequities in the free market. In short, the right sells the politics of fear, while the left sells the politics of class struggle. On Sunday, the politics of fear won the day.
The French election takes place within a geopolitical context similar to America’s. The economy is in shambles, and there is growing fear about the country’s future. It illustrates the relatively small effect that an individual leader has that the right wing Sarkozy is bearing much of the same blame that the left wing Obama is facing here in America. In many ways individual policies matter far less than the circumstances one faces once they are in office. Mr. Hollande offers much of the same policies as Obama does, but in France they are seen as needed reforms as opposed to the status quo (though I guess it’s worth pointing out that 4 years ago Mr. Obama’s policies were seen the same way).
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