French Elections: Preview of May 6 Runoff

by Hüseyin Koyuncu // Published May 4, 2012
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The French were strongly mobilized for the first round, with a turnout of 79.47%. Such a high turnout confirms that the presidential race is a highly regarded election for the Fifth Republic, with an average turnout of 81.2% in all presidential elections since the introduction of the direct universal suffrage in 1962.

 In the first round, the socialist candidate, Francois Hollande, with 28.6% of votes cast, is in the lead, while the incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy trailing narrowly with 27.2%. Among the eliminated candidates, were right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen (17.9%), left-wing champion Jean-Luc Melenchon (11.1%) and right-center Francois Bayrou (9.13%). Exit polls showed that backers of the eliminated candidates generally lean toward Hollande, as he would have defeated Sarkozy by approximately 10% among these voters if the runoff had taken place on April 22.

Hollande and Sarkozy will participate in the second round on May 6th. Hollande recorded the highest score ever for a Socialist candidate in the first round of the presidential elections, with the exception of François Mitterrand in 1988 who was running for his own succession. In comparison, Ségolène Royal (Hollande’s long-time companion with whom he had four children) received 25.87% in the first round, behind Sarkozy (31.18%).

Meanwhile, Sarkozy is the first incumbent French president in the Fifth Republic to not lead in first round votes – although in 1981 Valéry Giscard d'Estaing was defeated in the runoff.

A Strong Vote for the Nationalist Right in the First Round

Although Hollande is favored to win the runoff over the more conservative Sarkozy, the strong result of the extreme right constitutes the main surprise of the first round of the French presidential election. By gaining 18% of the cast votes, Marine Le Pen managed to register the highest score of the Front National (FN), in a presidential election. 

Never has the extreme right seemed so strong in France, even when her father Jean-Marie Le Pen made the presidential runoff in 2002, only to be crushed by a four-to-one margin. She almost doubled the percentage of Jean-Marie’s 2007 percentage of 10% and solidified the party in third place, ahead of Melenchon of the Left Front (11.7%).

Le Pen’s FN focused its campaign on four major themes: immigration, insecurity, the output of the euro and consumers’ purchasing power. The first two themes are still and always mark the “frontist” determinants of the vote - immigration is cited as a priority by 62% of voter’s insecurity for 44% of her electorate. However, the theme that allowed her to broaden the party’s electorate is helping consumers: 43% of its voters were sensitive to this issue, a level equivalent to national average (46%).

This week the Front National held its annual May 1st meeting. The event drew much attention, because everyone knew that Marine Le Pen give instructions on how to vote for the second round. She decided to make no endorsement, instead saying “I will partake in the none of the above voting system” and that “our hope lies in the legislative battle” in anticipating the parliamentary elections this summer.

According to Le Monde, Marine Le Pen, with her speech although apparently neutral, has especially aimed to dissuade her audience to vote for Nicolas Sarkozy. By betting on Sarkozy’s defeat, Ms Le Pen does not hide her strategy of having her party supplant Sarkozy’s UMP. She already mentions clearly her objective for the next general election: “gather a maximum of deputies so as to form the only real opposition to the ultra-liberal left, and libertarian party then conquer the power.”

In search of Le Pen’s first round votes, Nicolas Sarkozy said “What am I suppose to do? As Mr. Holland, I cannot pretend to ignore these 6.5 million French? I tell them, ‘I respect you, I hear you and, in some ways, I understand you.’” He criticized immigrants, saying “We cannot keep accommodating as many people in our territory because our integration system has failed, many people are attracted by our welfare system which is one of the generous in the world.”

Has Sarkozy lost the Center?

Sarkozy’s strategy of a shift to the right, followed by some of his faithful partisans, may scare some of the more moderate right voters, who could turn to François Hollande. 

Confirming this potential reaction of centrist voters,, the surprise of this political campaign came from the right-centrist candidate, François Bayrou, who did not endorse any candidate in the second round after his 2007 presidential bid. For the first time, a leader of a centrist party has chosen to vote for a socialist candidate, with Bayrou backing Hollande, although he said he "respects the different expressions" within his party. 

Bayrou explained that Sarkozy "has engaged in a pursuit-race to the extreme right ", with “an obsession of immigration and borders"has engaged in a pursuit-race to the extreme right ", with “an obsession of immigration and borders .” Bayrou added that "the political line chosen by Nicolas Sarkozy is violent, comes in conflict with our values, my own, but also those of Gaullism"

Hollande saluted Bayrou’s choice in his favor for the second round, he added that was an 'independent choice , " and there was" no negotiation "with him at the microphone of RMC radio. On the other hand, the head of Sarkozy’s UMP party did not hide his dismay, “I'm sad. I deeply regret the decision of François Bayrou because I absolutely do not understand the motivation.” declared UMP chief J.F Copé. 

Predicting the Runoff

The combination of the first round results, low approval ratings for Sarkozy, the Bayrou endorsement and the Le Pen non-endorsement suggests that Hollande has the upper hand for the runoff. According to recent polls, the Socialist candidate would obtain between 52.5 and 53.5% of the votes, against Sarkozy 46.5 to 47.5%. The campaign since the runoff and a debate this week did not seem to change the basic dynamic of French voters wanting to turn to someone knew.

Turnout again should be high. French voters like to say that the first round is a chance to vote for whom you really like. The final round is a chance to vote against the candidate you most really don’t like. Nearly half of voters will not have a chance to vote for their first choice from April 22. But they will be able to vote against the candidate they don’t like. That likely won’t be good news for President Sarkozy.