It all started with a scandal. On 14 May 2011, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of sexual assault, throwing the French political universe into abandoned frenzy. The articulate, slick (some might say slippery), silver-tongued DSK was not only the serving head of the IMF; he was also incontestably heir apparent to lead the Parti socialiste in the forthcoming presidential elections. The unforgettable image of this political titan, rumpled, bristly, and bound in handcuffs, was the visual starting gun that really launched the race to decide who would become the next president of France.
That Sarkozy would run was certain. The pugnacious little politician was desperate to show off his leadership credentials as he bounded, Napoleon-like, across the international stage as the self-proclaimed saviour of the European economy and the slayer of Libyan despotism. So the beginnings of one big election began with another, slightly smaller, election. All eyes turned to the Socialists. Who would replace the disgraced Dominique? The sitting president, although deeply unpopular, was no sitting duck, and the Socialists had an image problem, seemingly elitist and out of touch (all of which was grist to the mill for a certain Mme Le Pen, of which more later). Five candidates presented themselves: Martine Aubry, architect of the 35-hour week and a recent party leader; François Hollande, another former leader of the party; the far-left candidate and champion of protectionism Arnaud Montebourg; the Barcelona-born MP Manuel Valls; and finally, Ségolène Royal, ex-partner of Hollande, who lost to Sarkozy in the last election. Now, for the first time, the first round of voting was opened to all on the nation’s electoral register, a shrewd tactical move to dispel the charges of elitism and get France excited about the socialist challenge to Président Bling Bling. Some believed (hoped?) that the contest to elect the Socialist candidate would come down to a (former) family affair: Ségolène versus François. In the end, Hollande topped the vote with around 39% (Ségolène came in with a lowly 7%) and then fought a second-round victory over Martine Aubry.
In many respects, Hollande was an unlikely choice. Total absence of governmental experience was one area of weakness, which Sarkozy supporters hammered home with excessive gusto. Compared to the fallen incumbent, DSK, he was regarded as a soporific and unexciting politician, with an image of a court jester rather than a serious, animating political operative. To some degree, Hollande has taken steps to change this impression, tightening the waistline, changing the specs, and self-censoring the jokes and bon mots that usually peppered his conversations. The result from the first round yesterday seems to have vindicated this leaner, meaner approach. He does still retain some sense of the ordinary; in part, a strategic move to underscore the volatility of the hyper president. It also speaks to his affection for the former radical Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France, who remains popular among the left in France. But to capture Hollande’s style, as well as his politics, we need to recognise the influence of a far more revered figure in French history, Charles de Gaulle. In his Changer de destin–part manifesto, part autobiography–and throughout his campaign, Hollande has been explicit in his unyielding admiration for the general. Restoring France’s natural vocation as a “model for all nations” (as Robespierre put it), a matter-of-fact contempt for the rich, a promise to attack the pernicious spectre of finance that looms over French political life, and an admiration for the great and providential figures of the nation’s history; these are the staple categories that give shape and content to Hollande’s politics. They are also all impeccably Gaullian references and resonate strongly with the French electorate. Even Hollande’s promise not to live in the √âlysée if he wins the next round symbolically echoes de Gaulle’s stylistic approach to politics; he spent most of his time at his home in Colombey-les-Deux-√âglises and brought an intense personal ethic to the office of the president, most famously paying his own bills while in the √âlysée. This is all well and good, but there was another dimension to de Gaulle that Hollande does not, or cannot, seem to embrace: the idea of providential leadership and the politics of charisma. The success of Hollande if he wins the second round, and assumes the presidency, will be down to whether he can effectively balance his natural inclination to pursue a more consensual style of politics with the demands for charisma that have predominately shaped the rhetoric and actions of French leaders since Napoleon. Hollande must not forget that the Fifth Republic was forged for someone of heroic stature, by a man universally acknowledged to have possessed it.
One candidate who has charisma in abundance is Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National. Her first move, upon becoming the FN candidate, was somehow to moderate the more belligerent and splenetic rhetoric of her father and political predecessor Jean-Marie Le Pen. Initially, a public relations drive seemed to work, and the idea that there might be a repeat of 2002 (when her father defeated Lionel Jospin for second place in the first ballot) seemed very real. She capitalised on working class discontent, economic instability, the corruption scandals that have dogged the ruling UMP party, and the nation’s desperate youth unemployment. She presented herself as the “anti-elite” candidate, detached from the debased politics of Paris, willing to reindustrialise the heartland of the nation and release France from what many consider to be the millstone pulling the republic ever closer toward the edge of the financial abyss: the euro. Like her father in the 1990s, this scored well among the youth, who see their prospects in increasingly glum terms. But when Sarkozy officially entered the race, Le Pen’s ratings slipped significantly, and she quickly became a non-contender in the first round.
That does not mean her politics are no longer an influence on the subsequent course of this election. The most shocking fact of this round was the incredibly high vote for the Front National, which will make Le Pen a crucial dynamic in the weeks ahead. Sarkozy, the first Presidential incumbent not to win the first round, and who now has two weeks to save his Presidency, chose to respond to the initial surge in support for the FN by lurching to the right. He tracked Le Pen closely on a number of issues: he wants to significantly cut legal immigration, heighten the barriers for immigrant access to benefits, and reformulate the treaty on Schengen. Immigration really has been at the forefront of this election and was rendered even more focal after 19 March, when a young French citizen of Algerian descent gunned down three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse. The less nuanced saw this as a moment that would usher in a kind of modern day Dreyfus Affair, where France would assume the posture of national introspection. The analogy does not stick, primarily because Dreyfus represented an instance of state persecution of a minority, rather than an attack by a minority on a minority. In the long run, it is unlikely that it will lead to the sort of state-wide critical brooding that accompanied the Dreyfus Affair, because the issues of minorities, and their place in the republic, are second in importance to the issues of crippling unemployment and job insecurity. Ironically, the latter are the concerns of minorities themselves, balkanised in the banlieues without much of a voice.
Such a voice, however, might be found in the most exciting and by far the most progressive candidate of the first round: Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Here is a politician of unquestionably robust republican credentials. A former member of the Socialist party, and cabinet minister in Jospin’s government, Mélenchon, who now heads the growing Front de Gauche, summons the ghosts of Blum, Jaurès, and Michel. There is also a more than a little of Gambetta here as well, with Mélenchon’s call for a civic insurrection pitched in the same passionate key as the 19th-century statesman’s notion of guerre à outrance (it is also a position that chimes well with Stéphane Hessel’s best-selling Indignez-vous!, a vague but inspiring clarion call to resist the prevailing economic orthodoxy). Mélenchon’s forthright anti-free market stance, and his argument that austerity measures will not arrest the worrying downward spiral of the French economy, is certainly popular with many and is helping the left rewire its historic links with the working classes. But his vote was as surprisingly low as Le Pen’s was high. The Front Gauche now finds itself in a fight against Le Pen and the Front National, who have been seducing working class votes away from the far left for the last two decades. In the coming months, he will additionally present the Front de Gauche as an alternative base for the growing number of eurosceptics usually retained by the FN. Like Le Pen on Sarkozy, Mélenchon’s influence on Hollande will also be highly significant in the second round. Although many hoped that a high Mélenchon vote would shift Hollande further to the left, on yesterday’s results this is looking increasingly unlikely. But he has crucially called on his supporters to rally behind the Socialists in the second round, and Hollande might still attempt to embrace some of Mélenchon’s leftist ideals, while distorting them somewhat to fit the structural realities of globalisation. Despite falling out in the first round, the Front de Gauche certainly has to be seen from now on as a force that cannot be ignored in French political life.
All of the major candidates claimed to have a “certaine idée de la France”. It is still to be seen which of the last two, Hollande and Sarkozy, dovetail with the hopes and aspirations of the French electorate. As it stands, the contest for president has come down once again to a traditional incumbent conservative right versus pretender socialist left play-off, with the latter most likely to take it. In a moment of rhetorical thunder, de Gaulle once said: “everyone is, or will be, a Gaullist”. As Sudhir Hazareesingh has argued in a celebrated book on the Gaullist myth (Le mythe gaullien, soon to be published in English as In the Shadow of the General), the general still remains the most popular French historical figure of all time. If the polls are correct, and Hollande wins, it seems the general’s seemingly impudent prediction, for the foreseeable future, will have been vindicated.
Gavin Jacobson is reading for a DPhil in International Relations at Balliol College, Oxford. He is also a visiting doctoral student at l’Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris.