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France at the Polls – Adieu Sarkozy

PARIS, Apr 10 2012 (IPS) - In France, presidential elections are “the mother of all elections” and the fiery core of political debate. They are held every five years, in two rounds. In principle any French citizen can run in the first round, which will take place on April 22. If no candidate wins an absolute majority (over 50 percent of votes), a runoff election will be held two weeks later.

Since the foundation of the Fifth Republic in 1958, there has always been a runoff election between the two candidates with the largest number of votes in the first round. Thus we will almost certainly have to wait until May 6 to know the result.

For the moment, there is no clear winner, although polls show that the runoff will be between conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and socialist leader François Hollande. But the campaign is not over yet and one-third of all voters have still not made up their minds which candidate they will vote for.

The political debate is dominated by two major features: the current economic and social crisis, which is the most serious in recent decades[1]; and a growing distrust of the operation of representative democracy.

Sarkozy officially declared he was running for re-election on February 15, after which the giant machinery of his party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), lurched into action. But it will not be an easy battle. All polls show Sarkozy losing in the runoff to Hollande.

Sarkozy has become very unpopular. Abroad, many fail to grasp this because they are familiar only with his image as an energetic international leader who, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, led European Summits and the G-20. Moreover, in 2011, he evolved into a military leader and won two wars, one in Ivory Coast and the other in Libya. And then there is the “glamour” factor that has made him a permanent darling of the gossip magazines: his marriage to ex-model and celebrity Carla Bruni, with whom he had a child.

But it is important to bear in mind, first of all, a near-universal political principle: you don’t win elections because of foreign policy successes.

In addition, there is what appears to be a new political law that has emerged in Europe in the recent years of financial crisis: no government has been re-elected.

Second, there is the rest of Sarkozy’s record, which is execrable. In addition to the numerous scandals he was embroiled in, Sarkozy has been “the president of the rich”, to whom he has given unprecedented tax breaks while sacrificing the middle class and dismantling the welfare state. This approach has generated criticism from all French citizens who, bit by bit, found themselves besieged by difficulties: unemployment, cuts in the number of government employees, the increase of the retirement age, and the rising cost of living. The president simply broke his promises and the delusion of the citizens grew and grew.

Thus far not a single poll shows Sarkozy winning, though the president is a tenacious fighter willing to do whatever it takes to win, at times behaving like an unscrupulous thug or true mercenary. Since he began the campaign, with monumental shamelessness, he ­ the president of the rich ­ has had the nerve to present himself as the “candidate of the people”, wielding near-xenophobic arguments to pander to the far right. And not without effect: he immediately crept up in the polls, surpassing the socialist candidate.

For the moment Hollande is ahead in the polls, all of which show him sweeping the election on May 6. Little known abroad, Hollande is considered by his supporters to be a bureaucrat, having spent more than eleven years (1997-2008) as First Secretary of the Socialist Party[2]. Unlike his ex-partner Segolene Royal, he was never a minister.

Hollande is a centrist social-liberal known for his ability as a negotiator and for his difficulty in making decisions. His economic programme is hard to distinguish from that of the conservatives. After having stated in a campaign speech that the world of finance was “the main enemy”, he was pressured to go to London to calm the waters and remind the markets that no one had privatised and liberalised more than French socialists. As for the euro, sovereign debt, or budget deficits, Hollande ­ who now says he wants to renegotiate the Fiscal Pact[3] ­ is in line with other social-democratic leaders like Yorgos Papandreou of Greece, Jose Socrates of Portugal, and Jose Luis Zapatero of Spain, who, after disavowing their principles and accepting the humiliation by Brussels, were voted out of office.

The political flabbiness of Hollande is all the more striking when compared with the candidate of the Left Front, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Showing 14 percent in the polls, he is the big discovery of this election. His rallies draw the largest crowds while his speeches, true models of educating the people, are the most rousing of all the candidates. On March 18, on the anniversary of the revolution of the Paris Commune, he managed to mobilise about 120,000 people in the Place de la Bastille, something not seen in the last 50 years. All of this should spark a move to the left by Hollande and the socialists, though their current platforms are abysmal.

The platform of Mélenchon, summed up in a book called “Humans First”, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies, proposes among other measures: the sharing of wealth and the abolition of social insecurity; crushing the power of the banks and the financial markets; ecological planning; the convening of a constituent assembly for a new republic; withdrawal from the Lisbon Treaty and the building of another Europe; and the initiation of a process of deglobalisation.

The enthusiasm for Mélenchon is providing new hope for the working class, veteran militants, and the multitudes of young indignados.

While the far right is wilting and the attempt to revive it with Marine Le Pen is failing, these elections could show that in a Europe disoriented and in crisis, there is still the hope to build a better world. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

*Ignacio Ramonet is editor of Le Monde diplomatique en espanol.

[1] Unemployment: 9.8 percent. Unemployment of people under 25: 24 percent. Total number of unemployed: 4.5 million.
[2] In the polls, two-thirds of voters say they would vote for Hollande “to reject Sarkozy”; only one-third support Hollande’s ideas.
[3] See, Ignacio Ramonet, “Una izquierda descarriada”, Le Monde diplomatique en espanol, June 2011.

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