France Elects a New President: Analysis and Five Notable Facts

by Hüseyin Koyuncu, Rob Richie // Published May 7, 2012
Hollande Sarkozy 20120419


On May 6th, Francois Hollande won the second round runoff in France’s presidential election and will become the second socialist president of the Fifth Republic. Hollande defeated Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP), who will serve only one five-year term in the Elysee Palace. Hollande obtained 51.6% of valid votes, as compared with 48.4% for Sarkozy. 

Voter turnout was 80.35% of registered voters, including more than two million voters (nearly 6% of all voters at the poll who did not cast a valid ballot). Overall turnout was higher than the 79.34% turnout in the first round of voting last month (although lower among valid ballots), but lower than the 83.97% turnout in the final runoff election in 2007

France acts on its elections quickly, with the official count done quickly. Sarkozy will turn power over to Hollande on May 15, only nine days after the election. Tomorrow the two men will appear together at the May 8th ceremony in Paris.

At his campaign headquarters in Paris after the election, Hollande said that he had already turned to forming his government – a more straightforward task in France than in the United States, where the Senate must confirm all major political appointees and where parties are less cohesive and organized than in France. Among his commitments, Hollande plans to pursue equal gender balance in his major political appointments.

Holland must also prepare immediately for upcoming international meetings, such as the G8 and NATO summits. Given the result in France and the backlash in this weekend’s elections in Greece to the parties that negotiated its economic bailout, these meetings will be very important and may lead to changes in European economic policy.

Sarkozy Faces the Voters

Having faced an economic crisis since 2008 -- meaning most of his term -- Sarkozy faced a difficult re-election challenge. He was counting on a surge of right-leaning voters with appeals to the backers of the 6.4 million “frontist” voters who backed Maxine Le Pen in the first round, but failed to obtain the majority necessary for re-election.

Up until Election Day, he nevertheless displayed his confidence and promised "surprises", a burst of the "silent majority qui n’a pas eu lieu. But on Sunday night, he accepted his defeat, saying, "I bear all responsibility for this defeat, I'm not a man who does not assume his responsibilities. I need to draw all the consequences.” He has pledged to abandon electoral politics and resume his law career. 

International Reactions

White House press secretary Jay Carney said that Barack Obama congratulated Francois Hollande for his election to the French Presidency, and invited him to a bilateral meeting at the White House before the G8 and NATO summits planned for 18th and 20th May in U.S. Carney said that “President Obama said he intends to work closely with Mr. Holland and his government on a range of difficult issues in economic and security.”

German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who had taken the unusual step of publicly backing Sarkozy’s candidacy, has called the new Socialist president to congratulate him on his election. “They had a first exchange and agreed to work together on a Franco-German relationship that is strong, friendly and at the service of Europe, "according to the socialist Pierre Moscovici.

General Elections for Parliament in June

In the aftermath of this victory, both socialist and right parties are embarking on a new campaign, the legislative elections will be held on 10 June, with any necessary runoffs on 17 June. Since the presidential term was lowered from seven to five years, general elections for parliament take place immediately after the presidential election. This timing allows the French to more easily ensure a majority for the newly elected President, as they did in rewarding the party of the winning president in parliamentary elections in 2002 and 2007. In addition, parliamentary elections are held with winner-take-all,  single-member districts, allowing the leading party to exaggerate its representation in parliament.

Conservative parties will argue for a "rebalancing" of power in these elections, because currently the President, the Senate and most regions are controlled by the Socialists. But they face their own divisions, with the first round of voting key to seeing if Sarkozy's UMP party will be hurt by his defeat and whether Marine Le Pen's National Front will grow in support  Socialists will appeal to French voter to give Hollande the power to pursue reforms. They are calling for the mobilization of "all those who want change" to give the president a socialist "clear majority."

In the Spotlight: Five Notable Facts about France's May 2012 Election

1. France’s voter turnout is far higher than the United States: Voter turnout in the election was 80.35% of registered voters (with France, like most established democracies, having a much higher rate of voter registration of eligible voters than in the United States). Analysts expect that fewer than 60% of eligible American voters will cast votes in the November 2012 presidential race, with turnout disproportionately high in the dwindling number of "swing states."

2. Nearly 6% of voters spoiled their ballot: Many French voters go to the polls out of a sense of civic duty to participate in presidential elections – it can be embarrassing to admit missing an election for president. But that doesn’t mean some also don’t take pride in electoral acts of protest nor displeasure at a runoff lacking their preferred candidates. Even though the presidential race was the only item on the ballot, more than two million French voters -- 5.8% of all those at the polls -- spoiled their ballot. That's a large increase from the spoiled ballot rate of 1.92% in the first round when voters had a far greater array of candidates and could cast a more affirmative vote for a candidate they liked.

3. Voting is so easy that spoiled ballots are done on purpose: France administers presidential elections with a very simple method. Each presidential candidate is listed on a separate ballot paper. Each voter places the ballot paper of his or preferred candidate in their voting envelope and returns the envelope. (A voter wanting to keep his or her choice secret takes more than one ballot paper and discards the unused one in the trash.)To invalidate their ballot, the voter has to leave the voting envelope empty, put ballot papers for more than one candidate in the envelope or deface the ballot with writing. 

4. No voter, even if living overseas, is allowed to vote by mail, but can designate proxies: France does not allow any of its voter to cast an absentee ballot in presidential races, although it will allow this option in a limited fashion in the June elections for parliament. A voter who is homebound or travelling (even those serving France in its military) has two options: to find a way to get to a diplomatic office like an embassy to vote in person or to designate another French voter with the power to cast a ballot on their behalf. That helps explain why turnout among French voters overseas was much lower than those in France, but also why election results were so prompt and difficult to dispute.

5. France has its own red-blue partisan division, but every vote counts: The Guardian newspaper has provided well-presented data on the French election, with accompanying analysis. As with presidential elections in the United States, support for Hollande and Sarkozy varied dramatically in different parts of the country. But because France holds a national popular vote for president, every vote is equal wherever it is cast, and candidates and their backers have incentives to seek votes everywhere. Hollande in particular campaigned personally in a range of urban, suburban and rural areas.