Guest post by tf

France’s next presidential elections are due in about fifteen months: the first round in April 2007 and, since it is extremely unlikely that any candidate will gain a majority in that round, the second round in May. Candidates on the right and the left have been jostling for position for some time now. The New York Times is, as usual, asleep on the job, and has reported nothing to date on, for instance, the leading Socialist candidates, so I’m happy to fill you in…

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The big question in the past few years had been whether Jacques Chirac would run for a third term. Prior to the 2002 presidential elections, he had the constitution rejiggered to enhance his chances of winning his current mandate. Chirac was going to be 69 years old at election time, and, with the seven year presidential terms that Charles de Gaulle had introduced for the Fifth Republic, he would have been 76 at the end of his term. He was afraid that the French would be worried about his age, so he backed a proposed constitutional amendment to shorten the term to five years. This jibed with French popular sentiment that presidential terms were too long, and also with a feeling that the president’s term should coincide with the term of the parliament, which is normally five years, and so the amendment passed by referendum on September 24th, 2000, with 73 percent of the vote.

The Socialist government of the time, headed by Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, was unable to avoid proposing the referendum because of Jospin’s long publicly stated position in favor of shortening presidential terms. He had to back, on principal, a change that was regarded as favoring Chirac, his Gaullist rival. One of the reasons commonly advanced for having the presidential term run concurrently with the parliamentary term was precisely to avoid the cohabitation of a president of one party with a prime minister of another party. The 1997-2002 Chirac-Jospin cohabitation was the third of the Fifth Republic, the first being the 1986-1988 cohabitation between François Mitterand as the Socialist president and Chirac as the Gaullist prime minister, and the second being the 1993-1995 cohabitation between Mitterand and Edouard Balladur, another Gaullist.

While nothing in the new arrangement guarantees that the people will give a preponderance of their parliamentary votes to the same party as that of a newly elected president, people in France seem to expect that it will work that way. And indeed it did in the extraordinary circumstances of the 2002 election, when far-right presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen edged out Jospin in the first round on April 21st to make it to the runoff round against Chirac. Following Chirac’s overwhelming victory over Le Pen, on May 5th, with 82% of the votes, Chirac’s UMP party went on to victory in the parliament. In the first round elections, on June 9th, the UMP received 33% of the vote against 24% for the Socialists, and in the second round the UMP received 40% against 30% for the Socialists. This gave the Gaullist UMP an absolute majority of 354 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly. But the situation in 2002 was unusual, in that one of the main parties, the Socialists, was more demoralized than would ordinarily be the case from simply losing a presidential election. It will be interesting to see if, in some future election, the French don’t surprise themselves by electing a president from one party, immediately followed by a parliamentary majority for another party.

Issues from the 2002 elections persist on both the right and the left.

On the right, there was the possibility that Chirac would run again. He will be 74 years old at election time, and would be 79 at the end of a subsequent term, which is the age at which the previous president, Mitterand, left office. But two events have conspired to put Chirac out of the running. First was the defeat of the European Constitution that he had championed. Fully 55% of French voters opposed the constitution in a referendum on May 29th, 2005. And second was his hospitalization, from September 3rd to 6th, 2005, for a minor stroke, which raised questions about his health. The French are acutely aware that Mitterand had been largely ineffectual due to severe health problems during his second term. Chirac had been expected to run if at all possible in order to maintain his presidential immunity from prosecution. He is implicated in corruption scandals from his days as mayor of Paris. His protégé, former prime minister, Alain Juppé, was convicted in February, 2004, of felony misuse of public funds for putting party operatives on the Paris city hall payroll when Chirac was mayor and Juppé was the city’s finance director. Now, barring some unforeseen change in his fortunes, Chirac may have to face similar charges.

On the left, the question is whether there will be multiple candidates, as there were last time, which is what allowed Le Pen to knock Jospin out of the running. Chirac, with 20%, had received the most first-round votes. Le Pen had received 17%, which was somewhat higher than the 10% to 15% that he generally gets. But Jospin received just 16%. Part of the problem arose from a schism within his own party, with maverick Jean-Pierre Chevènement running separately and obtaining 5%. And part of the problem was that the Socialists’ coalition partners in government each put forth their own candidates: The Greens’ Noël Mamère had 5%, and the Communists’ Robert Hue had 3%. Then, there were far-left parties that took the votes of some who would be expected to vote Socialist in a second round. Arlette Laguiller and Olivier Besancenot, both Trotskyists, received 6% and 4% respectively. It is not clear, however, what portion of their electorate would be inclined to vote for a Socialist presidential candidate. Arlette, as she is universally called, saw little difference between Jospin and Chirac. (For that matter, she refused to call for her supporters to vote for Chirac over Le Pen in the second round in 2002.)

With Chirac out of the running on the right, and his one-time favorite Juppé significantly handicapped by the felony conviction, there has been much speculation about who will succeed Chirac. There are two leading contenders: Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. Much of the drama of Chirac’s present mandate has centered around his efforts to keep Sarkozy out of the running. Sarkozy was once a Chirac protégé, starting when he was practically a child prodigy in politics, entering elective office for the first time, at the municipal level, at the age of 22. But in 1995, Sarkozy backed Balladur against Chirac for the presidency, a betrayal that Chirac, who won, never forgave. Despite Sarkozy being the most popular politician on the right, Chirac refused to appoint him Prime Minister in 2002, giving the post instead to Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a pliant and unremarkable character. Following the defeat of the European Constitution, Chirac overlooked Sarkozy’s continuing popularity and dynamic performance as Interior Minister to elevate then-Foreign-Minister de Villepin to the premiership instead.

Sarkozy’s great advantage in the upcoming battle is that he has taken over Chirac’s party apparatus. In November, 2004, Sarkozy was elected chairman of the UMP. Chirac forced Sarkozy to choose between retaining a ministerial portfolio and accepting the party leadership. Sarkozy called Chirac’s bluff, became party president, and then, in May, 2005, was able to parlay his popularity into a return to government without relinquishing the party position. He has increased party membership, filling the party with his own loyalists. Many others in the party are in debt to him for his support in the March, 2004, regional elections, and June, 2004, European elections.

On the other hand, de Villepin benefits from being Prime Minister at a time when France’s economic prospects are looking somewhat up. He also might benefit from being perceived as having a more presidential bearing than Sarkozy, in a country in which the president is expected, at least nominally, to be above politics. Sarkozy is an aggressive media-savvy campaigner, whereas de Villepin is more detached from politics, having made his career as a diplomat. Indeed, de Villepin has never been elected to public office, having been appointed Foreign Minister and then Prime Minister by Chirac.

Sometimes mentioned as a possible alternative to either Sarkozy or de Villepin is Michèle Alliot-Marie, nicknamed MAM, the Minister of Defense, and the first woman to hold that position. However, she is a staunch Chirac loyalist, and would be unlikely to put herself forward unless Chirac’s current favorite, de Villepin, were somehow to be retired from the field. Another who will run on the mainstream right is François Bayrou, leader of the center-right UDF party, who polled 7% in the first round of the 2002 election. There is also Philippe de Villiers, who heads the small conservative MPF party. Alain Madelin, who scored 4% as a 2002 presidential candidate for the laisser-faire Liberal Democracy party, is now in the Gaullist fold. Hard to categorize, but definitely on the right rather than the left, is Jean Saint-Josse, of the Hunting, Fishing, Nature, and Traditions party. He garnered 4% in 2002.

On the far-right, Le Pen is sure to run again, unless, at the age of 78, his health fails. His succession is disputed between the number two in the National Front, Bruno Gollnisch, a holocaust-denying professor of history in Lyon, and Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, a leading party official who has managed to steer clear of being quoted saying particularly unsavory things. Bruno Mégret is another claimant to the xenophobic heritage of Le Pen. A member of the National Front until he fell out with Le Pen in 1991, and now heads his own groupuscule. Mégret obtained 2% of the vote in the 2002 presidential elections after running an ad campaign with such racist touches as a sketch in which a dark-skinned man pushes his way to the front of a line of otherwise light-skinned people at a government office. Mégret claps his hand on the offender, and yanks him away, then smiles at the camera while a voice-over promises that, under Mégret, the government will ensure that French receive preferential treatment.

Whereas there are just two main contenders on the right, the field is wide open on the left. The Socialists are determined to remain cohesive this time and run just one candidate, but they might not succeed. This time, it is former prime minister Laurent Fabius who is playing the role of the maverick. Although both the Socialist party rank and file and its leadership supported the European Constitution, Fabius led a significant dissident group and campaigned strongly against the constitution. His intervention may have been decisive in defeating the referendum, and his heft is such that the party leadership has had to deal with him rather than expel him, as well they might have wished to do. Fabius was once a centrist. He had been the architect of President Mitterand’s 1984 U-turn on the nationalization of large sectors of the economy, an event that marked the Socialist party’s definitive acceptance of free-market economics. Now he consorts with radical anti-globalization activists, such as José Bové.

It is not clear who will emerge as a candidate from the Greens’ convoluted process of consensus building. The Communists, reeling from their loss of status as the main party to the left of the Socialists, will be represented by their general secretary, Marie-George Buffet. It seems unlikely at this point that either party will go so far as agreeing to withdraw from the first round of the presidential election in order to help avoid a debacle like the one that took place in 2002, but perhaps this will not be necessary if there is no schism within the Socialist party itself.

I do not know what the Radical Party of the Left (PRG) plans to do. In 2002, their candidate, Christiane Taubira, received 2% of the vote. Taubira is a member of parliament from French Guiana, and one of the few candidates to advocate an explicitly multicultural France. The PRG sits with the Socialist group in parliament.

On the far-left, there have been noises about putting forward a common candidate, and José Bové clearly hopes that he will fill this role. Will Arlette and Besancenot step aside for him? It is hard to imagine. Arlette has been a candidate in every presidential election since 1974. Comedian, provocateur, and purveyor of anti-semetic tinged conspiracy theories Dieudonné also positions himself on the far left.

Among the stalwarts of the Socialist party, possible candidates include Bernard Kouchner and Jack Lang, and Lionel Jospin could also run again, despite having announced his definitive withdrawal from public life upon his previous defeat. Kouchner is a former health minister, was the founder of two major humanitarian organizations, Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World), and administered Kosovo for the United Nations from 1997 to 1999. Lang was a particularly influential culture minister, who created the hugely popular Fête de la Musique open air music festival that is held on June 21st each year.

The Socialist field also includes: François Hollande, stolid and uncharismatic head of the Socialist party since 1998; Martine Aubry, former labor minister in Jospin’s government and author of the law introducing the 35-hour work week; Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who has been both industry minister and economics minister, and who blogs; Bertrand Delanoë, mayor of Paris, and creator of Paris Plage, a festival that turns part of the city into a beach each summer (his candidacy was set back when Paris lost to London the competition to host the 2012 Olympics); and Ségolène Royal, currently the most popular politician in France.

Royal is president of the Poitou-Charentes region, in west central France, and is a former environment minister and has held portfolios in the education and employment ministries. In terms of mastery of the media, only Sarkozy on the right is her equal, and since the Socialists have been in opposition they have given her the lead to debate Sarkozy on television. She can be extremely combative while maintaining an even good humor.

This past week, most of the Socialist leadership appeared on television soaking in the rain at an hommage to former president Mitterand, on the tenth anniversary of his death. Royal skipped town, and was shown in sunny Chile, making carefully scripted stops on the presidential campaign trail of the Socialist candidate Michelle Bachelet, in the final days before Bachelet’s victory. She deftly snubbed the candidate of the right, Sebastián Piñera, when he hopped aboard the plane that was carrying Royal (he owns the airline) and tried to shake her hand in front of the news cameras. And she had herself photographed campaigning with Isabel Allende, a Chilean politician and daughter of Chile’s former president and martyred icon of the left, Salvador Allende.

There is a big debate in the French media right now as to whether Royal’s popularity as a presidential candidate will last. Detractors, including professional pundits such as Libérations Alain Duhamel, point out that she has never held a major” ministerial portfolio. They see her popularity as part of a general societal trend towards valuing style over substance, and they deplore such things as her mediatization of her family life. Royal has four children with her partner, the party head, Hollande, and, when she was a government minister, she invited the media to photograph her with their most recent child the day after she gave birth. That might not seem a big deal in the States, but in France there is a much stronger tradition of keeping one’s family life private. She justified her action by pointing out that it was a first in France for a minister in government to give birth, and she considered it an important step for women. But since then she has invited Paris Match to photograph her reading with her daughter, and she has invited television cameras to show her daily commute in Paris on the back of her son’s scooter.

Sarkozy has breached standards in similar ways, by inviting the media to comment on his relationship with his wife, Cécilia. She has acted as his chief adviser, both on the campaign trail and in his positions in government. The strategy backfired on him when the couple ran into difficulty, and stories of their infidelities began to appear in the gossip columns, though the latest such stories talk of a reconciliation. Will the 2007 presidential election shape up to be a Sarkozy-Royal battle, with children and spouses wheeled out for the cameras in what is considered in France to be an American style of campaign?

In my opinion, Royal is the more presidential of the two, if we consider the role of the president in the Fifth Republic to be above politics. While she is combative, she can also be consensual. Sarkozy is a much more divisive character, whose references to racaille (rabble or scum) in the housing projects helped to fuel France’s recent rioting.

Indeed, Sarkozy has an extensive activist political agenda. It include a Rudy Guiliani approach to law and order, and a frankly multiculturalist approach to social problems in a country that is loathe to recognize religious, ethnic, and cultural differences. As an example of his approach to law and order, in his campaign as Interior Minister to crack down on pimping networks from eastern Europe, he outlawed streetwalking. (While this removed prostitutes from the streets, to the delight of much of the public, the cost was probably much greater to the prostitutes who went to work in less public areas, where they were more vulnerable to abuse, than it was to any eastern European pimps.) He’s made it harder to enter France, and easier to deport people, and he’s abridged many protections of civil liberties. But, regarding his multiculturalism, he is also one of the few major politicians to oppose the headscarf ban and one of the few to push for affirmative action (or positive discrimination as it is typically called in France). He was instrumental in setting up the French national council for Islam, to put Muslims on an official footing equal to Catholics, Protestants, and Jews for dialogue with the government.

In the Fifth Republic’s system, I can much more readily see Sarkozy as a prime minister, under de Villepin, for instance. It is not surprising that Sarkozy is also arguing for changes to the French presidency, to make it more engaged.

As for candidates on the left, my own preference would be for Kouchner as president, given his distinguished record on the international scene. Foreign affairs is one area in which a French president is free to act (another is defense). As far as being a conciliating presence, if he could get people in Kosovo to work together (and his record there seems pretty good), presiding over France should be a cinch.