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Le Pen and Mélenchon battle in Hénin-Beaumont precinct highlights four-way French campaign

The most interesting contest in Sunday’s first round of the French parliamentary election may well be the most irrelevant to determining whether President François Hollande’s center-left or the center-right will control the Assemblée nationale — but it also showcases that the far-left and far-right are both playing the strongest role in over a decade in any French legislative election.

The race is the 11th precinct of the Hénin-Beaumont region, where Front national leader Marine Le Pen is running against Front de gauche leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon.  Le Pen originally targeted the region in 2007 (where she won 24.5% of the vote) — it’s an economically stagnant area where coal mining was once the major economic activity.  Think of it as the part of Wallonia that’s actually part of France.*

Like many of the old French Parti communiste strongholds, it is today receptive to the economic populist message of the Front national — in the first round of the presidential election, Le Pen won 35% there, followed by Hollande with 27% and Nicolas Sarkozy with just 16%.

So it’s a constituency that Le Pen continues to view as fertile ground, a great pickup opportunity in what seems to be the Front national‘s best shot at seats in the Assemblée nationale since 1997.

Mélenchon, however, decided to parachute into the precinct to run against Le Pen (although neither have true roots in the region), prolonging the bitter antagonism that marked the presidential race.  In the spring, their enmity seemed greater than even that between Hollande and Sarkozy.

Mélenchon’s eagerness to attack the Front national led to a surge of support in the first round.  Although Mélenchon won less than some polls indicated he could have, his 11% total was still the best presidential result for the far left in two decades.

For a time, it looked as if Mélenchon’s move was a masterstroke — he would secure a seat for the Front de gauche and in so doing, polls showed, would become the left’s champion in defeating Le Pen.  As predicted, the campaign for Hénin-Beaumont has become a battle royale between the far left and the hard right, with rhetoric matching that of the presidential campaign:

“I find it funny the passion he has developed for me and that he follows me all across France,” Ms Le Pen remarked to a group of journalists at her constituency headquarters in the recession-hit town of Hénin-Beaumont. “But it is good. He divides people. There are people who would not vote for me if he wasn’t here.”

Speaking earlier as he greeted shoppers in a street market in neighbouring  Noyelles-Godault, Mr Mélenchon brushed aside the innuendo that he has some kind of obsession with his rival.

“I do not find her erotic, as I have read in certain newspapers,” he protested. He had become a candidate in Hénin-Beaumont to “shine a light on the vampires” of the National Front, he said. It would be “absolutely shaming” for the left if Ms Le Pen were elected in a former mining area “at the heart of the history of the French workers’ movement”.

And so on.

But as the campaign concludes, polls show an uptick for Parti socialiste candidate Philippe Kemel, who had previously polled far behind the two national stars — even the retiring PS deputy had abstained from endorsing Kemel.

Two polls on Wednesday showed a tight race, however: Continue reading Le Pen and Mélenchon battle in Hénin-Beaumont precinct highlights four-way French campaign

Warning signs for Hollande in French parliamentary campaign

The campaign for French parliamentary elections kicked off just last Monday, for what most observers believe is a formality in installing the newly inaugurated President François Hollande’s Parti socialiste as the majority of the Assemblée nationale.

French voters go to the polls this Sunday for the first of two rounds — in each parliamentary district, if no candidate wins over 50% (with at least 25% support of all registered voters in the district), each candidate that commands at least 12.5% support of all registered voters (or the top two candidates, alternatively) in the first round will advance to the second round on May 17.

In 2002, parliamentary and presidential elections were fixed so that the former follows nearly a month after the latter.  As in 2002 and 2007, it is expected that the winner of the presidential race in May will thereupon see his party win the parliamentary elections in June.

The rationale is to avoid cohabitation — the divided government that sees one party control the presidency and another party control the government, which has occurred only three times in the history of the Fifth Republic (most recently from 1997 to 2002, when Parti socialiste prime minister Lionel Jospin led the government under center-right President Jacques Chirac).  More than in most countries, the French electorate seem a bit more allergic to divided government, which should give Hollande some relief in advance of Sunday’s vote.

But there are complications this time around, which may result in a somewhat murkier result.

Wait a minute, you might say: Deposed president Nicolas Sarkozy is off licking his wounds in Morocco, leaving a decapitated center-right split between followers of outgoing prime minister François Fillon and Jean-François Copé, head of the Union pour un mouvement populaire (which, unlike the Parti socialiste, is not a decades-long party, but only the latest brand of a series of shifting vehicles of France’s center-right) — Fillon and Copé last week were already sniping at one another.

A surging Front national on the far right (and increasingly and uncomfortably encroached on the center-right and parts of the populist left as well), under Marine Le Pen, garnered nearly one out of every five votes in the first round of the presidential election and is hoping to do just as well in the legislative election.

Meanwhile, Hollande’s prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, seen as a prudent and moderate choice to lead France’s new government, has a 65% approval rating (higher than Hollande’s own 61% approval!), and Ayrault is already moving to reverse part of Sarkozy’s signature reform — raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 — by allowing a small subset of longtime workers to retire at 60.

How, under these conditions, could the PS possibly lose? Continue reading Warning signs for Hollande in French parliamentary campaign

Who is Jean-Marc Ayrault?

On a day that François Hollande was inaugurated and held his first meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel, his appointment of a new prime minister in Jean-Marc Ayrault may be the third-most important news of day in French politics.

Nonetheless, Ayrault’s appointment to lead Hollande’s government is the first clear sign we have of how Hollande might govern over the next five years, long after the bloom of his (short) inaugural honeymoon is over and with many, many more meetings between the two leaders of the Franco-German axis that has traditionally moulded the European Union’s direction.  It’s not quite a surprise, given that Hollande seemed to hint at the appointment last week when he said his prime minister “must know the Socialist Party well, its left-wing members of parliament and be on the best of terms with me.”

Ayrault, also the mayor of Nantes, has served as the president of the Parti socialiste parliamentary group in the Assemblée national since 1997, when Hollande was chairman of the Parti socialiste. The two worked hand-in-hand during the ‘cohabitation‘ government of prime minister Lionel Jospin, who served simultaneously with President Jacques Chirac from 1997 until the 2002 election when Jospin, in a shock result, was edged into third place by the Front national‘s Jean-Marie Le Pen.

As Le Monde put it:

Ce sont deux sociaux démocrates, deux adeptes du compromis, deux européens convaincus qui se sont donnés pour mission d’apaiser la France et de la redresser. (“The pair are both Social Democrats, both supporters of compromise, both Europeans who believe their task will be to soothe France and also to reform it.”)

Known as a quiet pragmatist, a “normal” prime minister for a “normal” president (in a presidency that may come to be more reminiscent of Pompidou rather than Mitterand), Ayrault is notably moderate, notably uncharismatic and notably Germanophile — he is a former German teacher.

So what does Ayrault’s appointment indicate about Hollande’s thinking?  Continue reading Who is Jean-Marc Ayrault?

Could François Fillon have won Sunday’s French presidential election?

When I look at the final tally of votes in Sunday’s French presidential election — François Hollande took nearly 52% of the vote against incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy’s 48% — I cannot help but note that the margin is actually lower than in 2007, when Sarkozy beat Ségolène Royal with 53% of the vote.

It’s quite stunning — an election that was supposed to be a landslide for Hollande, in which every poll showed him beating Sarkozy by anywhere from five points to double digits, turned out to be closer than the Sarkozy-Royal race.

So when I look at that — and when you look at exit poll data showing that many Hollande voters were motivated not by Hollande, but rather by the desire to give Sarkozy the boot, I really wonder what would have happened if Sarkozy had stepped down from the presidency in favor of his longtime prime minister François Fillon. Continue reading Could François Fillon have won Sunday’s French presidential election?

Three elections — and three defeats — for EU-wide austerity

The concept of a ‘democratic deficit’ has long plagued the European Union — the EU’s history is littered with grand, transformative schemes planned by EU leaders that voters have ultimately rejected as too sweeping.  As recently as 2005, French and Dutch voters rejected the proposed EU constitution, smacking the EU elite for getting out too far in front of an electorate that clearly did not approve.

Sure enough, the story of the last three days — in the UK, in France and in Greece — will go down in EU history as a similar pivot point against German chancellor Angela Merkel’s attempt to impose strict fiscal discipline across the continent, even as additional electoral hiccups await in the North-Rhine Westphalia state elections later this week, the Irish referendum on the fiscal compact later this month and French and Dutch parliamentary elections due later this summer.

French president-elect François Hollande will now immediately become the face of the EU-wide opposition to austerity and is expected to challenge Merkel with a view that advocates more aggressive spending in a bid to balance fiscal responsibility with the promotion of economic growth — a distinct change in Franco-German relations after the ‘Merkozy’ years.  In his victory speech, Hollande called for a ‘fresh start for Europe’ and laid down his gauntlet: ‘austerity need not be Europe’s fate.’

It is an incredible turnaround from December, when Merkel and deposed French president Nicolas Sarkozy single-handedly pushed through the fiscal compact adopted by each of the EU member states (minus the UK and the Czech Republic), which would bind each member state to a budget deficit of no more than just 0.5% of GDP.  The treaty followed in the wake of the latest eurozone financial crisis last November, during which both the governments of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and Georgios Papandreou in Greece fell, to be replaced by Berlin-approved technocratic governments, each tasked with the express purpose of making reforms to cut their governments’ respective budgets.

Continue reading Three elections — and three defeats — for EU-wide austerity

Hollande and Sarkozy move beyond debate: motion without movement

French presidential finalists — incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and Parti socialiste candidate François Hollande — faced off Wednesday night in what commentators are calling the most animated debate in the history of French presidential debates.

In short, Sarkozy jumped into the arena as attack dog on any number of issues — defending his record on the economy in France and in the eurozone, and going on the offensive on any number of cultural issues, such as immigration.  Hollande, in turn, gave as good as he took from Sarkozy, showing that he could rebut the president’s jabs persuasively, forcefully and calmly.

For me, the debate is crystallized by a snarky exchange over Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former IMF managing director and Party socialiste heavyweight who, until he was charged with raping a housekeeper in New York last year, was the favorite to win the Socialist nomination and the French presidency:

“I won’t accept lessons from a political party that was enthusiastically uniting behind Dominique Strauss-Kahn,”Sarkozy said in a hard-fought debate four days before France’s election.

“I was sure you were going to bring that up,” Hollande retorted. “You put him at the head of the IMF.”

In any event, the result is a presidential race with a dynamic fairly unchanged from the pre-debate dynamic, with Hollande leading by anywhere from six to nine points in advance of Sunday’s second-round vote.  If anything, Hollande gained a little ground — by pushing back at Sarkozy, he showed he is not quite the squish everyone assumes him to be.

Ultimately, I can’t help thinking that the debate is a metaphor for the second round so far: a lot of motion, but not a lot of movement. Continue reading Hollande and Sarkozy move beyond debate: motion without movement

France presidential first-round campaign comes to an end

French voters go to the polls on Sunday for the first round of the presidential election.

While the French media has been fixated on rules that would prohibit the early publishing of exit poll data on Sunday, and each candidate has been making a final push for votes, there’s not so much to analyze in advance of the vote:

We already know the top two candidates to emerge will most certainly be incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and Parti socialiste candidate François Hollande.

Despite polls that showed Sarkozy tied with or even pulling ahead of Hollande, the trend has now moved back to a slight Hollande lead.  Either way, it seems a safe bet that each will win just under one-third of the votes.  Ultimately, every poll has shown Hollande with a significant second-round lead, so the winner of the first round will take away bragging rights and perhaps a little momentum, but if Sarkozy edges Hollande out in the first round by a small amount, don’t expect that alone to significantly scramble the dynamic.

Indeed, the first-round winner is by no means a lock to win the second round — Lionel Jospin, for example, won the first round of the 1995 election but Jacques Chirac emerged in the second round with a majority; similarly, François Mitterand lost the first round of the 1981 election (to Chirac) before winning the second round, and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing won the second round in 1974 after losing the first round.

The battle for third place looks a bit more interesting — although none of Front national candidate Marine Le Pen, Front de gauche candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon or centrist François Bayrou will place out of the first round on Sunday, a strong showing for any of them could increase their political leverage with Sarkozy and/or Hollande in the event of a second-round endorsement (Le Pen is unlikely to support Sarkozy, although her supporters will likely support him overwhelmingly; Mélenchon has already said he will support Hollande in the second round; it is unclear who Bayrou might endorse).  Each will also be looking to June parliamentary elections as well — a strong showing in April is not dispositive of a similarly strong showing in parliamentary elections, but it’s a good indicator.  Mélenchon, too, may well be able to exchange a full-throated and enthusiastic endorsement of Hollande for soft support in the legislative election and/or potential ministry posts for his fellow communist/leftist coalition partners.

Marine Le Pen and the youth vote

With 10 days to go until the French election, and with presumably more pressing topics to discuss, the campaign’s narrative has turned once again to Front national candidate Marine Le Pen — and her surprisingly strong support among the youngest voters.

According to a poll published in Le Monde earlier this week, Le Pen wins 26% of the 18-to-24 vote, to just 25% for Parti socialiste candidate François Hollande, 17% for incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and 16% for Front de gauche candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.  An IFOP poll earlier this week showed her polling second among the 18-to-22 vote.

This should not be a surprise – with unemployment running high in France amid near-recession levels of GDP stagnation and in the middle of a Europe-wide sovereign debt crisis (and currency crisis), it is perhaps understandable that job anxiety among the young, for whom unemployment runs highest, is fueling her support. 

Her anti-immigration rhetoric has been sanitized to the point where her argument is essentially economic and employment protectionism, less the nastier xenophobia of her father’s Front national.  She has no particular problem with LGBT rights and she has not emphasized religion in the same way as her father.  As an outsider, she is not tied to the difficulties and compromises that come with being a player in the European arena, which also undoubtedly plays a role in her success.

These polls somewhat remind me of the exit polls in the United States that showed U.S. representative and avowed libertarian Ron Paul leading among 18-to-29 voters in the Republican primaries of 2012 — as in the United States, it is hard to know whether to strike the anomaly to youthful rebellion or some deeper ideological turn among the right’s youngest generation.

But by all means: give Marine credit for her success.

She’s managed to take what was once a shamefully anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant and otherwise parochial party, headed by a grumpy old toad, and bring it within the mainstream of French politics.  Marine has clearly mastered the art of 21st century political imagery in ways her father could have never fathomed.  Indeed, at this point, the Front national probably has a stronger brand in France than Sarkozy’s own party — can you even name it?*  Even in a country like France where party identification is relatively weak, the party of center-right has been rechristened about once every decade in the Fifth Republic.  Continue reading Marine Le Pen and the youth vote

France’s election — three weeks to go

It’s been a while since I’ve posted much about France’s upcoming presidential election, and in large part that’s because the past week has been somewhat subdued in the wake of the Toulouse shooting.

But there are three weeks left until the first round and almost five weeks left until the runoff, with a parliamentary election to follow a month thereafter.

So where is the race headed?

Nicolas Sarkozy has shown he is leagues ahead of his competitors in terms of raw political talent.  He can move from European statesman to right-wing demagogue and back to statesman with dexterity.  One moment, he’s the sober-minded man of the hour to stabilize Europe, the next he’s arguing to halve immigration, the next he’s assuming the mantle of counter-terroist-in-chief (never mind that he presided over an administration that knew about, and failed to apprehend, the Toulouse killer prior to his deadly shooting sprees).

The past month of the campaign has not been flawless for Sarkozy, but there’s a sense that the momentum has switched from frontrunner François Hollande to Sarkozy — if not necessarily in support, then certainly in setting the campaign’s narrative.

Hollande’s strategy — to show up as the most credible ‘non-Sarkozy’ and riding his polling lead into the Elysée — is looking ever more precarious.  His cautious approach has left a space for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose fiery rhetoric has galvanized France’s left.

As such, a once formidable first-round lead has been reduced to a dead heat (at best).  Certainly, Hollande still leads polls for the second round, but if you add together the share of the vote currently going to Sarkozy, François Bayrou and Marine Le Pen, it’s not difficult to foresee Hollande losing his second-round lead as well. Continue reading France’s election — three weeks to go

‘It is difficult to imagine François Hollande acting like him. That is probably unfair but that’s the way it is’

In my post last night, I argued that the Toulouse shootings could harm French president Nicolas Sarkozy because it could (i) focus attention on the inability of French security services to apprehend Mohammed Merah after numerous warnings and after he committed two shooting rampages and (ii) force Sarkozy to mute his rhetoric on immigration, leaving the stage to more extreme voices like Front national candidate Marine Le Pen to capitalize on voter anger about the shootings.

I still believe that’s true — and we’ll know in two or three weeks when the politics of the tragic shooting have more fully played out.

And yet… this sentence from a superb summary in The Financial Times rings very, very true:

“This will definitely reinforce his strengths but it will also reinforce the weakness of his counterparty,” said one close associate of the president. “It is difficult to imagine François Hollande acting like him. That is probably unfair  but that’s the way it is.”

It’s been quite clear that Sarkozy has a much wider range of political skills than Hollande, and there’s a certain advantage to being able to project a message of unity and calm as the sitting head of state.

Who ‘wins’ in the fight about the Toulouse shootings?

To say that French president Nicolas Sarkozy will try to use the Toulouse shootings to his advantage in the presidential race is fairly coals-to-Newcastle (or, if you will, coals-to-Nantes).

Although his campaign is already trying to fake the high road by accusing rivals of taking advantage of the incident for political gain, Sarkozy himself has managed to sound a message of national unity and calm, on the whole, which should be the first job of any head of state in the aftermath of a tragic event. That’s to be applauded.  

But politically, it’s a fluid situation, and while it’s already impacting the presidential race (and it was impossible for such a large event not to impact the race), it’s not clear to me that it’s a win for Sarkozy, even if the gunman does turn out to have ties — real or aspirational — to al-Qaeda.

In a world where Front national candidate Marine Le Pen will continue to deploy over-the-top rhetoric in arguing that the way to stop future shootings like those that occurred Monday is to ban French immigrants and treat Muslims with suspicion, and where Sarkozy wants to be seen to rise above petty politics by playing the statesman, Sarkozy may well have to lay off the immigration rhetoric that he’s used to such great effect in the past few weeks — thereby giving up (for now) the one tool that’s helped him claw his way back into contention for the first-round lead.

While Sarkozy may try to use the incident to paint himself as a stronger candidate on terrorism — I have no doubt that Sarkozy’s tough talk will be more convincing than Hollande’s — I’m still not so sure that will be such a clear win.

If it is true that French security forces have known about the gunman for “a long time,” and if Parti socialiste candidate François Hollande has any fiery pluck as a candidate, he should soon be asking why Sarkozy’s government let the suspect shoot three Muslim soldiers and then, days later, three Jewish schoolchildren and one parent, before going after him — and then taking the better part of a day to apprehend the gunman.

 

French shooting upends presidential campaign

The tragic killing of four people outside a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday by Mohamed Merah, a gunman of Algerian origin, who may also have murdered three Muslim soldiers elsewhere in southern France, and who has ties to Afghanistan, has become a powder keg pivot point in the French presidential election.

With so much of a focus on immigration by both incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and Front national candidate Marine Le Pen — the campaign just a couple of weeks ago went a round on the threat of halal meat in France — it is not difficult to see how this story could galvanize the campaign in the days ahead in a way that could challenge the calmer, more pro-immigration voices of frontrunner François Hollande of the Parti socialiste.

The shocking event provides both Hollande and Sarkozy a crisis of the first order to demonstrate their particular styles of presidential leadership.

For now, a quick rundown of the responses so far: Continue reading French shooting upends presidential campaign

Mélenchon storms the Bastille


Over the weekend, the candidate of the Front de Gauche, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, held a well-attended rally in Paris in front of the Bastille, as if to confirm his arrival as the man of the hour in France’s presidential election.

Once the undisputed leader of both rounds of the presidential election, Parti socialiste candidate and frontrunner François Hollande now faces an ascendant rival on his left flank who is now taking just over 10% of the first-round vote in polls, even as moderate candidate François Bayrou continues to hold steady in polls with between 10% and 15% of the first-round vote.

With the Parti communiste français so withered that even former candidate Robert Hue has endorsed Hollande, Mélenchon — himself a former Parti socialiste member who had clashed in the past with Hollande — has consolidated the far left to a degree not seen in a generation.  The last time a far-left candidate won in excess of 10% in the first round of a presidential election was 1981 under Georges Marchais, so a double-digit finish would itself be a milestone.

No wonder the left cheers Mélenchon every time he grittily attacks Front national candidate Marine Le Pen.

In reality, though, none of Mélenchon, Bayrou or Le Pen have the kind of momentum that vaunted Le Pen’s father into the second round of the 2002 race or that put Bayrou himself into real contention in the 2007 race.  Hollande — for now — is in no trouble of falling out of the top two spots in the first round, and polls show that he’s maintained a smaller, but nonetheless still double-digit lead over Sarkozy in the second round.  So why should he worry?  Continue reading Mélenchon storms the Bastille

A mixed day for Sarkozy

Today’s news was mixed for French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

A new poll shows him with his first-ever lead in the first-round April 22 presidential election — at 28.5% to just 27% for Partis socialiste candidate François Hollande.  Hollande has a slimmer but still quite commanding second-round lead, where he polls 54.5% to Sarkozy’s 45.5% for the May 6 runoff.

Centrist François Bayrou held steady at 13%, but Front National candidate Marine Le Pen lost a point from the prior survey and Jean-Luc Mélenchon gained 1.5%, at 10% his highest poll rating to date.  The shift of voters away from Le Pen (presumably to Sarkozy) and to Mélenchon (presumably away from Hollande) is more than enough to explain first-round movement between Hollande and Sarkozy.

Looming on the horizon, however, are explosive charges from Mediapart, a French investigative website, that Sarkozy illegally received over €50 million from Muammar Gaddafi to finance his 2007 presidential campaign.  Sarkozy has denied the charges — and snarked that if true, Gaddafi certainly didn’t get his money’s worth, as Sarkozy joined British prime minister David Cameron in the NATO-led bombing campaign against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi last year.  The charges remain very much unsubstantiated, though. Continue reading A mixed day for Sarkozy

Schengen silliness

With French flags waving (as shown above) to the tune of La Marseillaise at a campaign rally in Villepinte on Sunday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy threatened to pull France out of the Shengen zone, calling for a French defense to the “European way of life.”

Don’t worry — you shouldn’t believe for a nanosecond that Sarkozy will ever take concrete steps to pull France out of the 25-member Schengen zone in a second term.

You should believe, however, that it’s the next logical step in a populist campaign to consolidate right-wing voters in advance of the first round of France’s presidential election.  Recall that Sarkozy opened his reelection bid with a call for a referendum on immigration.  Last week, he declared there were “too many foreigners” in France and called for the country to halve the number of immigrants permitted annually from 200,000 to 100,000.

The Schengen Agreement, signed in 1985 but which took effect in 1995, allows for free travel without internal border controls throughout the EU countries (except for Ireland and the United Kingdom), plus non-EU members Iceland, Norway and others.  Even the sovereignty-conscious Swiss are members as of 2008.

It’s the agreement that allows outsiders to visit any number of European countries (again, except for Ireland and the U.K.), while going through passport control and customs just once — at the port of entry.

Taken together with the EU Directive on services in the internal market, promulgated in 2006 with implementation taking effect in 2009, which aims to create a single market for services throughout the EU, Schengen is also the agreement that nudges freer movement of workers across the European continent, subject to the labor regulations of each member state.

In any context, Schengen must be counted as the chief achievements of the entire European project.

Continue reading Schengen silliness