Bulletin from France
Posted by Heather Hurlburt
In today's first-round presidential voting, the expected happened: and that, for France, is quite unexpected.
To wit: pre-election record levels of cynicism about the process nonetheless translated into record turnout; distaste for the two leading candidates, leavened with heavy doses of misogny and some nice anti-immigrant sentiment, nonetheless produced declines for all but one of the minor-party candidates who traditionally do well in the first round. And the far-right Jean-Marie le Pen falls to 10%, far below the second-place showing that so embarrassed France last time. So much for the SPECTER OF ANTI-IMMIGRANT SENTIMENT LEADING TO RIGHT-WING TAKEOVER.
For more, I'm attaching a bulletin from a dear old friend, former diplomat and soon-to-be French citizen:
A lot seems to have been learned since the shock of 5 years ago (Socialist Party members can't say "April 21st 2002" without shuddering). The presidential elections that year took place on a glorious April day, one of the first nice days of the year, and - assuming that the outcome was a given anyway - people on the whole chose to spend the day at the beach than in the voting booth. The participation rate hit an historic low (71.6%) and that, together with the splintering of the left vote across a gamut of little left- wing candidates, meant the unexpected happened - Jean-Marie Le Pen, with 16% of the vote made it through to the second round.
This year, the weather was just as brilliant, but this time French voters turned out in record numbers (85.6%), to such an extent that some polling booths stayed open past 20:00. Candidates, particularly on the left, were fewer (12 as opposed to 16) and on the whole voters tended to cast a "vote utile" - abandoning the fringes and sticking prudently to the mainstream candidates. Only one minor candidate - Olivier Besancenot, the young postman of the Revolutionary Communist League, managed to up his score, and that by a bare fraction of a percent (4.4% over 4.25 in 2002). The Trotskyist Arlette Laguiller, running in her sixth presidential campaign, pulled in less than 1.5%, as opposed to last time's 5.72%, and her worst score yet. The Greens plunged to 1.6 from 5.24, maybe because everyone's a Green now. The French Communist Party scored 2%, down from 3,27% - its worst score since WWII.
Maybe the biggest story is the (relative - sadly not total) collapse of the Front National, which slid back down to 11.1%, about what it used to score in parliamentary elections in the 1980s and early 90s. Probably partly a reflection of the tendency to flee the fringes, but also maybe due to Nicolas Sarkozy taking over much of the security and immigration discourse of the party and making it his own. Le Pen and the FN also benefited for a while from the supposed hankering of French voters for something different, something new, not the same old-same old. Can it be that that hankering has actually been satisfied by having Sarko and Ségo as candidates? Seems hard to believe, especially when you consider that both of them are hardly novel, having been kicking around politics now for two decades or more. Or is it more that French voters may say they are tired of the same old faces, but actually find them reassuring? That perennial paradox - the desire for and the fear of change - that has tied French politicians in knots for years.
The Bayrou phenomenon was an interesting one - the only really viable alternative in these elections and one who gave Ségo in particular a real scare - and one who did something practically unheard of in recent French politics by charging up the middle. In the end it didn't work, but it could be interpreted as a sign that a sizeable chunk of French voters express their rejection of old-style politics, and in particular the left-right divide, by seeking the middle ground.
(And I take it as a very good sign that José Bové did particularly badly. I have no patience with demagogues, whatever their political stripe, and he's one of the worst. I did like however that he managed in his campaign literature to describe backing a bulldozer into a McDonalds as "dénonciation de la mal-bouffe" - for which he served six months in the big house.)
And in two weeks? Rapid polls taken just after the first-round results were known give Sarkozy 54% of the votes in the second round, and Ségo therefore 46%. I'm not sure that will be the case - I don't think it's so completely in the bag as all that for Sarko . Many of the minor candidates will support Ségo (the Green Voynet and the PCF Buffet already have). The question is what happens to Bayrou's votes and Le Pen's votes. One might think they would naturally go to Sarkozy, but Sarkozy is a polarizing figure in a way that Ségo isn't, quite. There are people who will do anything to block him; fewer who feel so virulently the need to block her. And even before the first round there were calls in the Socialist Party for an alliance with Bayrou (which actually only served to show up the divisions and rivalries in the notoriously disunified PS more than anything else); maybe that will amount to something. Still, Sarko clearly has the edge right now; it's his to lose.
But the dust won't settle until the legislative elections take place in June. Though politicians consider co-habitation to be a disaster, the French actually seem to have adopted it as a kind of ad hoc way of providing checks and balances. So it is more than likely that whoever is elected in the second round will wind up facing a not entirely sympathetic government in June, and both sides will have to learn the art of compromise.
Sorry if this is a bit disjointed - I have France 2 blaring in the background, with that special kind of coverage that consists of more or less august figures interrupting each other and shouting a lot.