French Presidential and General elections

Will the PS emerge as the new French power?

On the evening of 6 May 2012, France will discover the name of its next President. The evening will mark the end of a long and intense political battle between all parties in the country, at a time of deep political and financial uncertainty.

As usual, the media frenzy will be huge. Newspapers have already started hiring journalists and interns to cover the show, often to the detriment of international affairs. Cafés and restaurants will be buzzing with political discussions.

Despite the many candidates who will be running (nine so far), the election is very much likely to be won by the candidate of one of the main two parties, Nicolas Sarkozy for the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), or Francois Hollande for the centre-left Socialist Party (PS). They will likely qualify for the decisive run-off of the election, a final head to head between the two candidates who got the most votes after the first round, on 22 April.

Even though Sarkozy has not yet officially entered the race, few doubt today that he will in early January. The UMP is getting ready for a blitz campaign of five months, which brought luck to Sarkozy in 2007.

The PS is on a similar timing. Francois Hollande, who won the primary organised by the PS in October, decided in November to mark a pause in his campaign in order to organise the party and get ready for the decisive last five months. The debt and Euro crisis – and Sarkozy touring the country – convinced him to accelerate the pace and get back on the campaign trail earlier than expected.

Hollande was the favourite in the PS primaries, after Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s dramatic fall in May. He kept a comfortable margin, building on his image as a modern social-democrat representing, like Jacques Chirac before him, the picturesque constituency of Corrèze. As former head of the PS, Hollande understands perfectly the dynamics of his party and knows well what risks it incurs if it fails again at seizing the reins of national power.

It is indeed a key moment for the PS. The party has not won a presidential election since Francois Mitterrand won twenty-four years ago. It won the parliamentary elections and governed effectively from 1997 to 2002 over a historic period of economic growth, with Lionel Jospin as Prime Minister. It had to deal though with a conservative President, Jacques Chirac, who humiliated Jospin when the latter did not qualify to the second round of the 2002 presidential election.

The PS has enjoyed great success in local elections, and remarkably won the majority in the French Senate in November (the first time ever under France’s current political regime). But the party’s poor performance at the national level risks marginalising it as a national force.

Many political parties will run and use the presidential campaign as a platform for the parliamentary elections that will follow in June. 6 May will in fact only mark the end of the first (and largest) part of this busy political year. From the Greens to the National Front, communists (Front de Gauche) to diverse small parties, many candidates will run without a single hope of getting to the second round but with an eye to improving their image and supporter numbers ahead of the general elections that follow.

This can encourage divisions between the PS and its allies on the Left during the campaign, as the political rhetoric heats up as parties seek to gather their bases and boost their visibility. This is tricky for the PS, as we saw recently with the Greens on the topic of nuclear energy. The PS candidate has to create a consensus and demonstrate that once elected, he will preside over a harmonious majority made of these different parties (the Greens, Radicaux, etc), beyond the disagreements publicly exposed during the campaign.

This is not insurmountable and Sarkozy will also face dissenting voices on the Right with the multiplication of candidates from the Centre-right (Bayrou, Villepin, Dupont Aignan and more) and the rejuvenated National Front lead by Marine Le Pen. Francois Hollande currently enjoys a comfortable lead in the polls, and the deteriorating economic climate will challenge Sarkozy’s case for re-election. Sarkozy was recently reported saying that if France lost its triple A rating, he would be “finished”. With record high unemployment and stagnating purchasing power, voters will seek for an alternative to President Sarkozy’s broken promises, even if the crisis made them impossible to fulfil.

The PS has also proven its capacity for innovation with the organisation of the first open primaries in the country in October, which gathered more than three million voters, giving a boost of visibility to both the party and its candidate. Also, the French diaspora will be able to elect its own MPs for the first time in June. French people in London will have their own MP with Axelle Lemaire leading the charge for the PS and Emmanuel Savarit for the UMP. In France and all over the world, activists are getting ready for this exceptional political battle.

What will count in the end is the extent to which voters will seek change in the current climate and whether Hollande in particular and the Left in general look credible enough to lead this alternative. Sarkozy is a very talented politician and campaigner and should not be underestimated. Hollande’s current lead in the polls could melt down when Sarkozy officially launches his campaign. The financial and economic uncertainties could also dissuade voters to vote for a change in power. After three terms with conservative presidents, this is indeed a key moment for the PS.

Alex Margot-Duclot is a Senior Consultant on Portland’s International Affairs team. A French citizen, he has gained political experience campaigning for local, European and general elections in France and the UK.