The French Election: What You Need to Know

The French took to the polls for the first round of the presidential election yesterday, Sunday April 22. With voter participation of over 80%, the result of this first round dealt an unexpected blow to Nicolas Sarkozy, the first incumbent in France’s 5th republic not to come out on top after a first round of voting. It’s also the first time since 1995 that a Socialist candidate won the most votes in the first round, breaking the governing party’s nearly two-decade long hold on power.

In many ways, yesterday’s outcome constitutes a vote of no confidence against Sarkozy. While he has touted himself as the only candidate able to navigate the EU crisis and steer France clear from economic disaster, Sarkozy has apparently failed to convince his country men and women that he’s the best man for the job.

The big upset in this first round, though, was not that Hollande beat Sarkozy by nearly 3 percentage points, but that Marine Le Pen scored nearly 20% overall, coming in as a strong third candidate, well ahead of centrist Francois Bayrou and communist candidate Jean Luc Melenchon. Marine Le Pen is the intellectual and political heir of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was the central figure of the extreme-right party the Front National for decades. Her strong results in the first round prompted her to declare that “nothing will ever be has it has been” during her “victory” speech. The Front National represents an ethos of strong “patriotism” – France for the French – with strong undertones of xenophobia and isolationism. The fact that 1 in  every 5 French voter cast their ballot for her should again raise bright red flags for the French polity. The threat of the extreme-right Front National has been underestimated for years – in 2002, Marine’s father, Jean-Marie, made it to the second round of the election without even reaching her historic score in the first. At the time, the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, was humiliated in this defeat, and retired from politics.

In 2012, however, the stakes are different. The integrity of the European Union – economically, politically, socially – is in peril. Never before has the EU been tested the way it’s being tested now, and France plays a central role in managing the crisis. Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel have been working very closely together on EU crisis management, and she’s been supportive of the incumbent over the Socialist candidate. Nevertheless, as the Socialist party has traditionally been supportive of the European “project”, as it is sometimes euphemestically called in French politics, Hollande has campaigned on limiting austerity plans – a popular position. Further afield, on foreign policy issues, Hollande is calling for a renewed French engagement in Africa and a clean break from the “Francafrique” policies of his predecessors, getting French troops out of Afghanistan, and – according to a single sentence on his website – for the creation of a Palestinian state. On a key European question – whether Turkey should be allowed in the EU – Sarkozy continues to think no, while Hollande is open to the possibility. While the French presidency doesn’t determine the outcome here, the position held by France on this issue does matter, if only because of France’s central role in the EU architecture.

Foreign policy – outside of EU considerations – is not a top item on French voters’ agenda. The country has been reeling from deep social and economic wounds, and the focus, for now, seems clearly inwards. Immigration is of course a key issue – Marine Le Pen’s results attest to this – but only from a narrow national perspective, as opposed to considered within the context of globalization and worldwide migration patterns. For Sarkozy, France must tighten its borders, accept fewer immigrants, and improve paths to “integration”. The left-wing newspaper Liberation, in an article last month, drew comparisons between Sarkozy and Hollande’s immigration policy proposals, noting that both candidates policies are in fact quite similar: decreasing immigration, better integration (Hollande thinks that learning French should be a priority.)

While – unsurprisingly- immigration policy discussions gravitate to the right for both major political parties, Hollande is offering a genuine alternative to Sarkozy. After five years and a controversial track record, Sarkozy is the man who has to prove himself in the next two weeks.