French Election

In France, the Challenger Is in the Driver's Seat


Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande

Photograph by Getty Images

Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande

(Corrects in sixth paragraph the threshold for 100 percent income taxes that Jean-Luc Melenchon promised during the campaign.)

On Sunday night, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was left fighting for his political survival—a battle he looks in danger of losing—when his Socialist rival François Hollande squeaked past him in the first round of the presidential elections, winning about 28.8 percent of the votes to the French leader’s 26.1 percent, according to the polling company Ipsos.

If Hollande prevails in the decisive round on May 6, as several polls suggest he might, France’s Socialists will win their first presidential election since the end of the Cold War—with potentially huge ripple effects across Europe as the region’s second-biggest economy anguishes over how to dig itself out of a deep recession.

Hundreds mobbed the street outside the Socialist Party headquarters on Paris’s Left Bank as the sun set on Sunday, bracing themselves for an early, sweet victory and chanting “François, président!” Later, Hollande addressed supporters from his rural constituency of Corrèze, calling the election “a repudiation of the outgoing president.”

With a deficit of charisma, the mild-mannered local politician, who has never held national office, rose through party ranks on hard work rather than dynamism. Yet he has tapped into a wave of disdain for Sarkozy. That antagonism appears to have hardened with the deepening of Europe’s recession. The French, looking for a reassuring leader, have found instead in Sarkozy a splenetic, twitchy politician whose manner increasingly grated on their nerves. Lingering distaste over his messy divorce and speedy remarriage to Carla Bruni has not helped, either. “At least half the population hates Sarkozy’s guts,” says Dan-Antoine Blanc-Shapira, director-general of the Paris events planning company Sensation, who voted for Sarkozy in 2007. “I’ve never seen people hate a president like this.”

Blanc-Shapira was among many who vacillated for weeks over whom to vote for, and who finally picked Hollande. While he believes the country’s entrenched labor protections stifle growth, he also criticizes Sarkozy’s unwillingness to raise corporate taxes beyond 43 percent. Hollande, who once said on television, “I hate the rich,” has proposed massive wealth taxes, including a 75 percent income tax rate for those earning more than 1 million euros (about $1.3 million). Partly because of that policy, Blanc-Shapira says he isn’t thrilled with having voted for Hollande, but adds, “Neither candidate convinced me.”

The same was true for about 10 million people on Sunday who voted for extreme left-wing and right-wing parties. Sunday’s biggest political earthquake was the mammoth support for the far-right National Front, whose youthful, telegenic candidate, Marine Le Pen, won nearly 7 million votes after campaigning to have France abandon the euro and halt all immigration from North Africa. Millions, too, voted for far-left parties, many of whose Communist-style policies make Hollande’s tax plan look tame. About 11 percent of voters chose Jean-Luc Melenchon, whose popularity rocketed in recent weeks on a promise to impose 100 percent income taxes on anyone earning more than 350,000 euros (about $469,000) a year.

Hollande and Sarkozy will frantically try to court those millions of extremist voters within the next two weeks. The polling company CSA released exit data showing that more than 90 percent of Melenchon’s supporters intended to vote for Hollande on May 6, while 52 percent of Le Pen’s backers said they would vote for Sarkozy. Looking drawn and somber after the polls closed, Sarkozy seemed to channel Le Pen when he told supporters he represented the French who wanted to “fight against outsourcing and control immigration. To preserve their lifestyle is the central question of this election,” he said.

For the French, preserving that lifestyle—a system of fine public health, excellent schooling, and highly protected job security—has dominated the political narrative for decades. This time around, however, the conundrum over how to pay for that sweet life has reached a crisis point. Debt now stands above 90 percent of gross domestic product. Unemployment remains seemingly fixed at around 10 percent, with figures far higher for youth and minorities.

Whichever man awakes as president-elect on May 7 will face those cold statistics, and need to swallow hard.

Walt is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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