Category Archives: France

Emmanuel Macron: A Sign of the Times?

On the eve of the first televised debate between the presidential candidates, one of the core enigmas of the presidential campaign thus far is that of Emmanuel Macron. Who is Emmanuel Macron? The search for the ‘real’ Macron has preoccupied journalists, commentators, political satirists and (rival) politicians in recent weeks, in more or less good faith. Does Macron represent the tardive manifestation in France of Blairite Third Way, as suggested by Arnaud Parmentier in Le Monde ? Or, on the contrary, as the specialist of the French right Gilles Robert contends, is Macron a contemporary version of the liberal, Orleanist right Or, more crudely, the representative of international finance, as maliciously portrayed by Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, in a not so strange convergence? Or quite simply the continuation of the (failed) Hollande presidency, the favourite frame of the LR candidate Francois Fillon? Elucidation via comparison and analogy is heuristically useful, but a fuller comprehension logically requires more time: it is still too early to describe and diagnose the ‘real’ Macron.

Macron is not a totally unknown quantity, of course. As deputy General Secretary of the Presidential staff from 2012-14, Macron was a key figure in the background, exercising a reputedly strong influence in relation to the social liberal turn of the Hollande presidency (lowering taxes on business via the Business tax credit scheme [Crédit d’impôt pour la compétitivité et l’emploi – CICE] of 2013) and the Business Pact [Pacte de Responsabilité] of 2014). As Minister for the Economy, Industry and Digital Policy, Macron associated his name with a complex law that aimed comprehensively to modernize and liberalise the French economy; that most of its more controversial measures (especially in relation to the professions and work regulations) were abandoned or diluted was more a testament to the stout resistance of the Socialist frondeurs than evidence of half-hearted intent. In August 2016, Macron resigned from his position at the heart of the Hollande administration to launch the risky venture of building his political movement (En Marche!, launched in April 2016) and standing for the French presidential election. At the very least, he is a political entrepreneur and a risk-taker.

Focusing on the individual qualities of the potential candidate is a necessary (though not sufficient) exercise. Understanding Macron requires adopting, or at least adapting, a framework for studying political leadership. Most models of political leadership involve some combination of personal qualities, positional strengths and weaknesses, and the wider environmental and cultural constraints and opportunities that help shape political leadership. Though the object of our analysis is not (yet) President, understanding Macron requires a combination of three levels of analysis: micro (individual), the meso- (institution) and the macro (European, international economy). The political constellation and the interaction of these three levels arguably places Macron in a strong position to win through to the second round and eventually be elected President

The presidential office is contested by individuals who bring potentially different styles, visions, sets of beliefs and capacities to the office. Not all of the candidates seek to win election to the presidency, of course. Of the 11 candidates qualified to stand in the 2017 presidential election, two, perhaps three might be considered as having a realistic chance of being elected President. The division of the left between Jean Luc Mélenchon and Benoît Hamon makes it unlikely that either the PS or the France insoumise candidate will win thorough to contest the second round; were Mélenchon to stand down in favour of Hamon that might change the situation and produce a genuinely exciting finish to the first round. But, at the time of writing, such an outcome seems unlikely. Of the three remaining ‘heavyweight’ candidates, no single poll has yet given Le Pen victory in the second round run-off, though most envisage her presence on the second round. In spite of recurrent difficulties, Fillon is still in the presidential race and has now definitively seen off an attempt to replace him as the LR candidate. The damage is likely to be lasting; but it is too early to write off Fillon for either the first or the second round. However, Macron currently appears to be benefiting from a favourable, though fragile, political constellation. Though there are obvious risks in his political positioning, does he articulate the micro-, meso- and macro- dimensions of successful political leadership better than the other candidates?

At the micro-level, we understand style to refer to the complex mix of preferences, beliefs, skills, values and practices of individuals in a potential leadership situation. There is an individual dimension to this; the leadership qualities of decisiveness, strength, resolution, risk-taking, vision and imagination are differentially distributed, irrespective of wider structural circumstances. Not even his fiercest adversary can contest the ability to take risks; giving up his position as Economy, Industry and Digital minister to launch himself into the risky venture of En Marche! demonstrated this. Resigning from the civil service (and reimbursing a substantial sum to the State) to be able to contest the campaign goes in the same direction. The personal style provides some substance to the demand for greater transparency. Does Macron embody the sign of the times? Quite possibly. He represents better than any other candidate the demand for a new generation. If elected President at 39 years old, Macron will be a few years younger than Tony Blair and around the same age as Matteo Renzi in Italy when he became premier. For all his efforts, however, the JDD-IFOP poll of 16-17th March suggests that public opinion remains somewhat unconvinced with Macron enterprise. His honesty is contested be more than half of respondents (52%, against 48%) but this might be read as a more general response to a question about the honesty of politicians. His presidential stature is rather more worrying. The survey suggest that opinion is sharply divided in relation to whether Macron has the stature to be President (48% for the proposition, 52% against), or whether he is capable of reforming the country (48% for the proposition, 52% against). The two potentially most difficult findings reflect a certain governmental inexperience: only 46% (against 54%) consider he is able to ensure the security of the population. And only 41% consider Macron to be close to the people; his background as a brilliant ENA graduate and his work for Rothschild leave the indelible image that Macron is a member of the French elite.

At the meso- level, Macron appears to have integrated and internalized the limitations of the presidential office: his recognition that, with 25% of the first round vote as a maximum, he would be unable (or unwise) to attempt to form a majority in his name was novel. Calling for a broader coalition of forces to support his action, and anticipating building a centre-oriented majority, bears reminiscences of President Giscard d’Estaing (1971-81). There are echoes of former President Giscard d’Estaing in other senses as well: a modernizing President who referred to the need to govern from the centre, in the name of two out of every three French citizens, yet whose activity was crippled by the lack of a firm parliamentary majority. Whether President Macron would be able to govern without a parliamentary majority (deprived of effective use of the pro-executive tools such as Article 49, clause 3 of the constitution since the 2008 constitutional reform ) remains to be seen.

Macron just might confound the bipolar logic of the Fifth Republic that has traditionally seen left and right contest the second round. His position is fairly close to that explicitly embraced by François Bayrou in 2002, 2007 and 2012 presidential elections (Bayrou logically rallying to support Macron). In 2007, Bayrou almost broke through to the second round, with 18.57%. One decade later, following two deeply unpopular presidential terms, Macron is on the cusp of going one better than Bayrou. Macron’s avowed disdain for party politics is both a strength and a weakness. Given the extent of the electorate’s professed distrust of political parties, such a message has an active appeal; Macron is rather more convincing than Fillon or Le Pen in this respect. The downside is the lack of a tested organization capable not only of mobilizing for an election, but providing a disciplined cadre of deputies to support presidential action thereafter. Not the least of the paradoxes is that Macron integrates the crisis of trust in parties into his own appeal. Escaping from the trap of the primaries, Macron is able to practice a form of triangulation (drawing on ideas from across the political spectrum) in a manner that it not available to his leading opponents, themselves bound by the logic of the primaries or well-established programmes. Macron’s eclectic programme, published in early March, was justified by the candidate in terms of actively mobilising citizens in its co-construction.

At the macro-level: Macron appears to have positioned himself clearly in relation to debates on globalization, modernization and economic reforms, in a manner that justifies Parmentier’s analysis that identifies broad continuities with the new Labour project of the late 1990s (economic reform married with social justice, a resolutely pro-European message, investment in education, emphasis on responsibilities and individual merit, challenging corporations that mar France’s economic success). Macron is the only candidate standing on an explicitly European integrationist ticket, calling for more effort to respect the terms of the Stability Pact and to adapt France’s economy. But how much of this is electoral rhetoric? Let us not forget that Macron was a highly interventionist Industry minister, notably in terms of frustrating the announced merger of SFR and Bouygues, or again interfering in operations of the Renault car maker (indeed, creating diplomatic pressures with Japan by raising the French State’s stake in the car maker). While Macron has a clear message in terms of economic reform, he is far less audible in terms of security responses or with respect to societal issues related to French identity and multiculturalism that play to the Fillon and Le Pen agendas. This might represent a risk; the other area of potential weakness relates to the funding of various promises such as the abolition of local taxes for most of the population, the introduction of a massive investment programme, the reintroduction of a form of national service and the introduction of new conditions for obtaining unemployment benefit.

The case of Macron raises the more general question of whether certain individuals are suited to certain types of setting. Does Macron represent the sign of the times, the candidate who embodies for many the qualities necessary to revive a stagnating polity and liberalise an under-performing economy? While the other main candidates mobilise their core electors for the first round, Macron is arguably alone able to articulate the potentially pivotal central space, an advantageous position in advance of the second round. Will he be able to withstand the rigours of the campaign that is starting at last to focus on the policy choices facing France and overcome the substantial first round barrier represented by Fillon? The waiting game is almost over.

A Strange Affair: The 2017 Presidential Election Campaign in France

In an article written 15 years ago, I described the 2002 presidential election as being a strange affair. The 2017 contest is turning out to be even stranger. In between the two elections, the electoral scenarios have shifted. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen won through to the second round against expectations, with almost 18% on the first round; massive republican mobilization saw incumbent President Jacques Chirac re-elected with a large majority (81.75%). In 2017, few commentators cast any doubt on the likely presence of Marine Le Pen on the second round, though predictions of a Le Pen victory are more prevalent in the foreign media than amongst French commentators. While the expectation that a left-right cleavage will produce a run-off between a Socialist and a Republican candidate has underpinned most presidential elections, such a scenario appears unlikely in 2017.

But it is difficult to keep tabs on this campaign and several scenarios remain open. There is no presidential frontrunner and no absolute certainty about which candidates will win through to the second round. As it evolves, an increasingly likely scenario is that of a run off between two anti-system candidates, Marine Le Pen, for the Front national and Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! Both candidates have successfully positioned themselves as above party; somewhat paradoxically, the absence of primary elections in the case of these two candidates has strengthened the claim not to be dependent on party. As the campaign dust settles, there is at least the beginning of a programmatic debate. Macron and Le Pen represent distinct alternatives and choices in relation to an overarching cleavage that might be described as cosmopolitanism versus ethnicised national identity. It is a sign of the times that only one candidate – Emmanuel Macron – has explicitly engaged himself in defense of the European project, including a public commitment to bring France back within the criteria of the Maastricht stability pact. In early March, Macron finally presented his programme, after many weeks of delay and preparation. Macron’s mix of economic liberalism, social protection, political moderation and European integration recalls New Labour, with two decades delay, the principal difference being Macron’s lack of a robust party organisation. Marine Le Pen’s national populist programme, on the contrary, articulates the demand for closed frontiers, economic protection, national preference and the recovery of an (illusory) monetary sovereignty, with France eventually exiting the euro after a referendum. The two putative second round candidates at least represent clear alternative visions of the future based on differing positions on the national protection, European integration and globalization spectrum. It is difficult to say as much for Fillon, whose radical cutting edge of November 2016 has been blurred in the fog of the Penelopegate affair. And even Hamon, whose radical Universal Revenue idea dominated the latter stages of the PS primary, has been bogged down in interminable negotiations with potential partners (the Green candidate Jadot withdrawing in favour of Hamon, but J.-L. Melenchon steadfastly refusing, probably ensuring the defeat of the Socialist candidate on the first round).

As it is unfolding, the 2017 campaign potentially challenges three unwritten rules of presidential elections. First, that control of the party organisation ensures the presidential nomination; this hierarchy has been upset by the primaries, though paradoxically it remains valid for the two leading ‘anti-party’ candidates, Macron and Le Pen. The primary elections have overhauled party organizational (logics) and created winners whose appeal is deeper to the core partisan electorate than to the elusive median voter (Hamon, Fillon). Meanwhile the logics of the primaries extend far beyond the selection of the party’s candidate. As I write (7th March), Francois Fillon appeared to have weathered the storm, using the result of the LR primaries to fend off challenges to his candidacy. Fillon’s argument is not only that he was consecrated as champion of the Republicans in the primaries, but also that LR sympathizers voted for radical programmatic change. As Fillon pointed out, in his televised intervention on France 2 (5th March 2017), no-one can prevent him from standing as candidate (all the more in that he has already deposited the 500 signatories necessary to stand). In this case, the primary election provided a powerful shield, even against the investigating magistrates announcing the opening of a judicial investigation against Fillon and convoking the candidate to appear on 15th March. Just in case of doubt, Fillon played the People against the Party card, steadfastly refusing to stand down as candidate notwithstanding intense pressures and the desertion of a swathes of LR deputies and senators from the Fillon campaign team. Juppé’s announcement on 6th March that he would in no case be candidate removed one serious obstacle to Fillon’s survival. On the Socialist left, the lasting impact of the primary has been to create a gulf between the candidate and the mass of PS deputies, deeply anxious about their – slim – prospects of re-election within the PS label.

The second unwritten rule being challenged in 2017 is that the presidential election encourages a left-right bipolarization and a corresponding presidentialisation of the party system. This was always an excessively institutional argument; each presidential election has produced a rather different political configuration. In practice, the bipolar logic of the presidential election, as assumed to have shaped political and party competition throughout most of the Fifth Republic, appears increasingly out of kilter with the 3, 4 or 5 party reality. It might be objected that this has always been the case; the 2017 campaign needs to be placed it in its historical context. One consequences of fitting a three-, four- or five- party reality into the bipolar jacket is that the threshold levels for gaining access to the second round is lowered: to around 20%. Combined with the partisan logic of the primary elections, the first round logic of rallying core supporters is stronger than ever. Candidates give primacy to first round mobilisation over the anticipation of second round strategies in 2017 because the outcome of the first round was far less certain than in any other recent presidential race (except arguably 2002). The 2017 campaign revealed more starkly than ever before the paradox that the traditionally most-coveted institution – the presidency – is contested by at least three of the leading five candidates. This institutional disaffection is complicated in 2017 by the deep anti-party sentiment.

Third: is the 2017 challenging the view that the presidential election is the core decisive election on which French politics is centred? The 2017 presidential contest will be the 10th direct election of the Fifth Republic, sharing some similar traits with previous elections, but also having its own distinctive characteristics. One of the core assumptions is that the presidential election brings in its wake a comfortable majority for the victorious candidate in the subsequent legislative elections. This mechanical relationship might not function as assumed in 2017. In the event that either Macron or Le Pen are elected President, it must not be assumed that an overall parliamentary majority will be produced in the wake of their triumph. Macron recognised this last week, when he acknowledged that a first round electoral base of 25% would not provide the necessary legitimacy to underpin a single party majority. There is a very real possibility that the candidate who eventually emerges as President will not obtain an overall majority ‘in his or her name’, one of the principal Gaullist legacies of the Fifth Republic.

France – President Fillon: faute de mieux?

I was invited as an expert on the France 24 news programme last Friday (17th February).  As a guide to what I might prepare, I was told:  simply talk about the fronde.  Talk about Fillon, Hamon and the frondeurs. The use of the term the fronde has become ubiquitous.  Bearing a very loose link with its original meaning (the revolt of provincial parliaments and nobles against the centralizing pretensions of the French monarchy), it has been translated into a metaphor for resistance to an established  government (in the case of Valls from 2014-16) or even politicians (the case of Francois Fillon). Widely used to describe the rebellious group of Socialist MPs during the Hollande presidency, the term la fronde is now being employed to point to the stiff resistance of a number of Republican deputies – second fiddles close to Nicolas Sarkozy – to the prospect of Francois Fillon’s candidacy for the Republicans. Georges Fenech, Claude Goasguen, Nadine Morano and others justified their latest attempt to bar the route to Fillon with the argument that it is impossible to campaign for the candidate, that there is a deep lack of trust from Republican supporters throughout the country. A first attempt to force the LR candidate to stand down was crushed in Fillon’s press conference of 5th February; a second, more half-hearted effort was put down by Fillon on his return from La Réunion (a welcome three-day respite) a week later.

Faced with pressures from Sarkozy supporters, Fillon has decided to remain droit dans ses bottes, to resist the pressures pressing on him not to stand. This determination appears backed up by the latest surveys; the IFOP survey for the Journal de Dimanche (19/02/2017), for example, reports that 70% of likely Republican voters believe Fillon ought to maintain his candidacy for the Elysée. A core Republican electorate of 18-20% provides a solid base to encourage perseverance, though it is down from 28% in the immediate aftermath of the LR primaries.  As the deadline nears for filing the support of the minimum 500 signatures of elected officials, Fillon appears more than ever likely to tough it out and be a candidate. There is no serious Plan B. The 40-something generation is totally unable to agree on an alternative, while the Barons of the primary – Juppé and Sarkozy – have declared they will not contest Fillon. His determination to stand as candidate – even in the event of being called to trail, a break with his initial stance – is justified by Fillon with the argument that there is no possible alternative candidate.

Dampening la fronde required a contrite Fillon to pay a visit to erstwhile rival Nicolas Sarkozy, however, following which the LR candidate pledged to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 16 years old, an old Sarkozy promise. The re-focusing of the campaign on security issues is a testament to the continuing influence of Sarkozy. In the context of riots in the suburbs, after a vicious police attack on the adolescent Théo and the violent response of a small minority of demonstrators, Fillon’s campaign has taken a security turn.

Meanwhile, the PS candidate Benoît Hamon – one of the leading frondeurs during the Valls premiership – is discovering the difficulties of reunifying a divided party, let alone a imposing himself as the uncontested champion of the left.  The aftermath of the primary retains a bitter taste. Few close to Valls have been involved in the Hamon campaign and the Macron temptation remains real, though there has been only limited movement towards Macron and En Marche ! (the main exception being the mayor of Lyon, Gerard Collomb, and most of his local party).  Hamon’s strongest argument is that of the useful vote; without a rallying of the main forces of the left behind his presidential bid, there is a real possibility that the left will be excluded from the second round. This logic is more or less accepted by Yannick Jadot, the candidate designated by Europe Ecologie les Verts, who organized an internal consultation which produced massive support (amongst voters in the EELV primary) for a rallying to Hamon as a Socialist candidate acceptable to the ecologists and their post-material and environmental agenda. But the key factor that might make a difference is that of Jean-Luc Mélenchon: the candidate standing in the name of la France soumise remains at around 10% of the electorate and is showing no inclination to stand down in favour of Hamon (whose likely electorate is stagnating at around 14-15%). Hence the direct appeal to Melenchon’s electors on the basis that Hamon is the only candidate who might prevent a run-off between Fillon and Le Pen – or between Macron and Le Pen (an equally sad state of affairs for some). The strategy just might pay off, especially now that Macron’s support has shown the first real signs of ebbing faced with his unwillingness – or inability – to publish a presidential programme.

Emmanuel Macron’s campaign is the most intriguing. Thus far, Macron has been the clear beneficiary of the public’s disaffection with Fillon and the choice of the frondeur Hamon as the PS candidate. Rising as high as 23% in the first round voting intentions, Macron is behind Marine Le Pen but ahead of Fillon. But is the Macron ferment beginning is likely to fade? The rally of support from disaffected PS deputes that he might have expected following Hamon’s victory in the primaries has not yet materialised. Attendance at campaign meetings has been rather disappointing (with the exception of Lyon). The En Marche ! candidate is beginning to pay the price for the refusal, or inability to publish a presidential programme. Where exactly does he stand on the big issues of the day? His attempt to position himself above left and right represents the latest attempt in the Fifth Republic to escape the straightjacket of the traditional left-right cleavage. Bayrou, with over 18% in 2007, came within a whisker of overhauling the established order, but failed at the last hurdle (Sarkozy and Royal fighting the run-off). Will Macron go one better?  Nothing is less certain: cultivating a new form of equidistance between left and right, he is likely to disappoint both centre-left and centre-right supporters. Declaring in Algeria that colonization was a crime against humanity might strengthen his position amongst certain groups in French society, but will alienate others whose support Macron needs if he has any chance of winning through to the second round. The logic was clear: to confront the issues from France’s colonial and post-colonial history preventing the nation from progressing. But has the candidate unnecessarily raked up past tensions for minimal political benefit? The ostensible efforts at destabilization by Putin and the Russian secret service deserve the fullest attention– the rumours on his sexuality, or on the financial sources of his campaign are  identified as a source of  illegitimate intervention not only by Macron, but by the Foreign minister Ayrault as well. But how long can Macron prosper without a programme?  An energetic candidate Macron is en marche…but towards what, exactly?

In the 2017 campaign, one candidate – Marine Le Pen – is very well prepared. She is the most likely to profit from the shifting of the agenda to security and migration related issues in the wake of the police brutality claim against Theo and the outbreak of violence in the Paris suburbs. The security turn has the advantage of occulting – somewhat – the issue of campaign funding. Herein lies the greatest paradox; Marine Le Pen is summoned to repay around €350,000 received by the European parliament to pay assistants working, in reality, for the FN in Paris. But this damning indictment has been transformed from a potential dead-weight into a political argument, at least insofar as it is a stick to beat Brussels and to tap into an underlying state of Euroscepticism. Marine Le Pen has been polling up to 27% in one of the recent polls. She has the most solid electorate: around 90% of potential Marine electors affirm they will not waver and declare themselves certain to vote for their candidate. By contrast, only 35% of Macron voters states they are certain to vote for the En Marche ! candidate. How solid is the glass ceiling that prevents the FN’s Marine Le Pen from being elected on the second round in 2017? When financial markets start to worry – and the ‘spread’ starts to widen – is it time to reevaluate the chances of Marine Le Pen? Making predictions post-Brexit and post-Trump is a hazardous business. This is the strangest campaign in recent years. It is very difficult to predict which candidates will run through to the second round. If  Marine Le Pen looks in pole position, her likely adversary could conceivably be one of three men: Macron, Fillon and – possibly –Hamon, if the latter manages to create a unitary dynamic in the last few weeks of campaigning. The most likely scenario in this fluctuating and addictive campaign is that the glass ceiling will hold – this time – and that Marine Le Pen will not win on the second round. This scenario is the most plausible if Fillon wins through to the second round, which is looking increasingly likely. Fillon faute de mieux?

France – The presidential election takes shape

On Sunday, the Socialist party chose its candidate for the 2017 French presidential election. At the second round of the party primary, voters chose Benoît Hamon over the former Prime Minister, Manuel Valls. Hamon won about 59% of the votes cast. With his selection, the line up of candidates – or at least the serious ones – for April/May’s election is now probably complete.

There are five main candidates in the field. From left to right, they are: Jean-Luc Mélenchon of The Left Party; Benoît Hamon for the left of the Socialist party; Emmanuel Macron for the centre-left or centrist En Marche! movement (the exclamation point is obligatory); François Fillon for the right of the right-wing Republicans; and Marine Le Pen for the populist, alt-right, extreme-right National Front.

The election is François Fillon’s to lose and he seems to be trying his best to do just that. The received wisdom was that whoever the Republicans chose as their presidential candidate would be able to win the election easily. This was because there was no serious candidate on the left and because Marine Le Pen is unelectable at the second ballot. So, when Fillon won the party nomination in November, he seemed to be a shoe-in. However, things are perhaps changing.

Fillon won the primary by appealing to the conservative element within the Republicans. This made sense if we assume that the median voter in the party is also conservative. However, once selected, it would appear to make sense for him to move to the centre. He has to win 50% of the  popular vote to win the second round of the presidential election and he will need the vote of people other than traditional conservatives to reach that figure. Yet, since his selection he has pretty much maintained his conservative stance on moral issues, welfare policy, and public sector cuts. Perhaps he assumes that he is bound to go through to the second ballot. On that assumption, then he may also assume that he actually has to avoid moving to the centre too soon and in so doing cede ground on the conservative right to Le Pen, thus continuing to pen her in as it were on the extreme-right. However, his refusal to move anywhere close to the centre has merely created a wide-open centrist space for Emmanuel Macron to move into. What’s more, last week a story broke about Fillon’s wife. It has become known as ‘Penelopegate’ after his English wife’s first name. The allegation was that Fillon had employed the aforementioned Penelope from his parliamentary allocation, but that she had done no work in return. If so, this is a so-called ’emploi fictif’, which is a crime. In an attempt at political damage limitation, Fillon said that he would withdraw from the contest if he was formally put under investigation. The long timeframe that it would most likely take for a formal investigation to start works in his favour, so it was probably a safe declaration to make. However, his problem is that even if nothing comes of the allegations before the election or indeed ever, which is quite possible, it has painted Fillon as a person of the establishment, remunerating his wife, and it turns out his sons as well, from the public purse. Relative to Sarkozy and Juppé, he was able to position himself as a sort of outsider, despite the fact that he lives in a castle. (Sorry, manoir). Not any more. His poll ratings have dropped and he is now in a tight race to qualify for the second round.

Fillon’s main first-round challenger has emerged as Emmanuel Macron, who has positioned himself somewhere on the centre-left. Perhaps more importantly, while he has some ministerial experience, he too is presenting himself as an outsider. In the context of France, Europe, most of the previously civilised democratic world, and, who knows, perhaps the universe generally, this seems like a winning electoral strategy at the moment. He has been helped by Fillon’s political positioning and #Penelopegate. He should also be helped by the Socialists’ choice of Hamon, who is on the left of the party. Already some PS deputies have said they are going to support Macron ahead of their party’s official candidate. In the most recent poll, Macron came in at 21% on the first ballot, one point behind Fillon. We all know that polls are no longer worth the pixels they’re reported in, but it looks like a closer first-round race now than at any time before. Indeed, all polls show that, like Fillon, if Macron qualifies for the second round, then he will easily beat Le Pen. So, there is now much talk of President Macron.

However, some caution may yet be in order. Macron is still behind Fillon, though only just. More importantly, he has no campaigning experience. He has been astute so far, but the campaign is only really beginning. He could come a cropper, especially as he comes under more scrutiny. More than that, he has no policy programme yet. It’s promised some point soon. But, as it stands, we don’t really know exactly what he is proposing. When it appears, it could raise issues that he has difficulty responding to. Also, he doesn’t have the backing of the Socialist party. More than that, the party establishment, or parts of it at least, would probably wish to see him lose, maximising their chances of maintaining their position as the main force on the left, rather than helping him win and then having to play second fiddle to him and his new movement!. At some point, not being the candidate of a major party might be a problem, especially if the Socialists play dirty. So, while Macron is currently better placed now than ever before and while recent events have been favourable to him, as yet he is no certainty to qualify for the second round.

In terms of Mélenchon and Hamon, we can think of it as a battle for what’s left of the left of the left. Mélenchon would have preferred Valls to win the Socialist primary. This would have allowed him to take up the mantle of the anti-establishment left candidate unopposed. However, Hamon is a Socialist frondeur. He’s been a thorn in the side of the Hollande administration and has gained some popularity by proposing the idea of a ‘universal income’. With Hamon campaigning in the same general space, it’s difficult to see Mélenchon breaking through. The same can be said of Hamon, though. There’s probably around 15-20% of the population that might be tempted by a credible truly left-anchored candidate. However, Mélenchon and Hamon are likely to fight out that vote between them. In fairness to Hamon, though, he has revitalised a certain previously demoralised Socialist electorate that feels hard done by under President Hollande. Hamon has the wind in his sails for a short time at least. He too can credibly position himself as an outsider. He may well beat Mélenchon, but it’s difficult to imagine the circumstances in which he would make it through to the second ballot.

This leaves Marine Le Pen. She is still ahead at the first ballot in all the polls, though sometimes not by much. Her problem is that she loses to everyone at the second ballot by a large margin. Her hope is that she will be the Donald Trump of France. In fact, she had herself pictured in Trump Tower in New York just before the inauguration. She wants to bring together the usual anti-immigrant, extreme-right vote that has been loyal to the FN for a while now, but add to it a working-class electorate that is worried about economic issues and that doesn’t like the EU. She is pushing a certain social welfare agenda, pressing on populist economic issues, and, as usual, identifying lots of enemies at home, the near abroad (read Brussels), and further afield still. It’s a strategy similar to ones that have worked in the US, Austria (nearly anyway), and in the Brexit referendum. In terms of getting elected, it’s a strategy that might have legs, especially if Fillon and the right implodes, and if she faces Macron at the second ballot in the context where Macron’s own campaign has become derailed somehow. In other words, it’s not beyond the bounds of imagination that the polls are underestimating her support, that some of the filloniste right could vote Le Pen at the second round ahead of even Macron, and that some of the left might even stay at home and not vote for Macron, in which concatenation of probably unlikely circumstances Le Pen could perhaps just squeak through. (Did you see all the qualifications I put in there).

But even then it’s a long shot. While Le Pen’s strategy has allowed her to emerge as the first-placed candidate at the first ballot, there are still no signs that she has sufficient support to win at the second. In France, there is already a certain populist left. This makes it more difficult for Le Pen to build a populist left/right coalition that might be possible in other countries. She, and the party, also have their own corruption issues. Indeed, the FN was relatively slow to jump in on the #Penelopegate furore last week, at least partly because of those troubles. More generally, there is still a solid set of voters on the left, the centre, and on the right that sees the FN as illegitimate and that will not vote for it whatever the circumstances. Finally, if you tie your colours to the Trump mast (bright orange presumably), then while you may rise with Trump, you can also fall with him too. No doubt some of the things Trump is doing in the US also appeal to FN voters in France, notably the immigration ban from certain Middle East countries. However, for at least as many voters the prospect that a Le Pen presidency might engender the same sort of chaos in France as Trump is currently causing in the US is likely to be off-putting.

There was a time when the 2017 French presidential was very predictable. No longer.

France – The Socialists in Search of Survival?

In a previous blog entry (‘Bye bye Mr Sarkozy, hello Mr Nobody’) I argued that the generalization of the mechanism of primaries to select presidential candidates challenged an unwritten rule of party competition: that control of a political party produces a natural advantage for a candidate seeking election to the presidency. In the case of the Socialists, the success of the PS primaries in 2011 occurred because the voting constituency was broadened well beyond the traditional party members and activists; the party itself was fairly marginal to the procedure and reconfigured on the basis of the results in the primary election. Herein lies a paradox: while in 2011 the primary election produced victory for the candidate best placed to defeat the incumbent President Sarkozy, in 2017 the Socialist primaries are turning in favour of a candidate – Benoît Hamon –  who is considered to have no chance whatsoever to win the presidency, or even go through to the second round, but who represents a form of ideological purity that is valued by activists and sympathisers after five years of inevitable compromises in office.  The primary is being fought for the right to lead the party in opposition and define the contours of party renewal and survival after the heavy forthcoming defeat. The paradox is more apparent than real; in parties across Europe, primary elections (or similar mechanisms) have mobilised, first and foremost, enthusiastic (young) activists and sympathisers in search of ideological renewal and survival. Jeremy Corbyn provides a similar example in a rather different context. In the specific case of the Socialist primaries, some 73% declared their priority to be that of selecting a candidate faithful to the values of the left, as against only 24% who considered their vote would help to select a future President.[i]

What a difference a quinquennat makes. If the Socialist primaries were the great innovation of 2011, paving the way for the eventual electoral victory of François Hollande in 2012, the primaries of the Belle Alliance Populaire[ii], taking place on 22 and 29th January 2017, are a pale imitation, a mere side-show to the shaping up of the presidential contest between likely players: François Fillon (Les Républicains), Marine Le Pen (Front National) and Emmanuel Macron (En Marche!). The victor of the Socialist primaries – with Benoit Hamon the clear favourite in the run off with Manuel Valls – will likely feature in fifth position in the polls, behind Le Pen, Fillon, Macron and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. [iii] The primaries of the Belle Alliance Populaire were originally conceived as a political instrument to allow incumbent President Hollande to gain momentum and stand for re-election.  Hollande’s dignified but unprecedented announcement in December 2016 that he would not stand for his own re-election was another novel precedent in the Fifth Republic.  Diminished for years as a result of persistently negative opinion polls ratings, Hollande fell victim to his proximity to journalists[iv], and the coup de grace exercised by two former protégés: for Industry minister Emmanuel Macron, who resigned as Industry minister in Summer 2016 to concentrate on creating the En Marche! movement and standing for the presidency; and former Premier Manuel Valls, who put maximum pressure on Hollande not to stand and pave the way for his own presidential bid. Hollande’s decision not to stand transformed the primary into a captivating side-show, one detail of which was the incumbent President’s refusal to watch the presidential debates (preferring to attend a show) or to vote in the first round of the primary (on account of an official voyage in Chile). Revenge of a sort…

The Socialist primaries are a rather melancholic retrospective on the inability of the French Socialists to reconcile their core contradictions that has a long history.[v] The primary election has laid bare the endless search for the reinvention of the PS based on bridging two increasingly irreconcilable families: the governmental left (represented by Hollande and articulated by Valls in the primary, notwithstanding his  contorsions and contradictions); and the ‘radical’ left, organized as the ‘frondeurs’ during most of the 2012-17 period. The leadership of the latter was one of the main issues at play in the primary. The mantle of leader of the left was disputed between the initial favourite, Arnaud Montebourg, already candidate in 2011 and former Minister of Industrial Renewal until being sacked by Valls in August 2014 ; and Benoît Hamon, a former Education Minister, who was also sacked early on by Valls for insubordination.  Both Hamon and Montebourg formed part of the Ayrault and Valls governments until their forcible ejection from the government in 2014. The primary played out, in miniature, the permanent drama that undermined the Socialists throughout the five years of the Hollande presidency: governmental versus radical left.

So what is the primary for?  To select the party’s presidential candidate? Yes, probably. There is no absolute certainty that the candidate selected on 22nd  and 29th January by the Belle Alliance Populaire primary will actually carry the colours of the party in April 2017. The most likely victor – Hamon – has made it be known that he might stand down in favour of Mélenchon in the interests of increasing the left’s chances of reaching the second round.  Is the main issue at stake that of determining the leadership of the rump Socialist Party after predictable defeat in the 2017 electoral series? Almost certainly. Hamon barely disguises his view that control of the PS rump will allow a transformation and ideological and organisational renewal of the party. But will there be any party left to lead? A Hamon candidate polling 7-8% at the presidential election would have disastrous consequences for Socialist prospects at the legislative elections that will follow the presidential contest in June 2017. The real benchmark is the 67 deputies retained by the PS in the 1993 legislative elections that concluded the troubled period of PS-run government from 1988-93. Will Hamon be able to ensure the return of a core rump of PS deputies? A credible performance in the presidential election might be the sine qua non for a successful capture and renovation of the party after the forthcoming electoral defeats; at present, the polls give little hope for Hamon (8-9%).

Within these narrow parameters, the three leading candidates have been navigating the horns of a dilemma. Manuel Valls, premier from 2014-16, has been forced into the role of defender of the record of the 2012-17 governments, indefensible in the eyes of the other leading candidates, Hamon and Montebourg. Valls (31.19% on 22nd January) has had to endure a complicated campaign: beyond the empty venues and frosty receptions, the former premier was forced to fight on the defense of the 2014-2016 record in office. He positioned himself as  unifier of the left, though he had diagnosed the  irreconcilable nature of the two lefts within the PS while still prime minister and called for the replacement of the PS with a more explicitly reformist party back in 2008. Symbolically, the commitment to exclude the future use of article 49, clause 3 was out of kilter with its use 6 times in 2015 and 2016 to force the Macron law and the El Khomri laws through their various parliamentary readings in the National Assembly and the Senate. The hard line taken on issues of laïcité  and security were reassuring to some, but deeply hostile to others.  The results of the first round, where Valls (31.19%) trails Hamon (36.21%) suggest that the record of the Socialist governments from 2012-17 has become a millstone around the neck of Hollande’s longest serving premier. The cocktail of economic realism + security + republican citizenship is not enough to re-mobilize a Socialist electorate disillusioned by the record of the 2012-17 governments.

Arnaud Montebourg (17.62%) fought a strangely  passéiste campaign, based on national protectionism, industrial revival (‘Made in France’) and Keynesian relaunch which  appealed to some traditional PS voters in industrial, non-metropolitan zones, but appeared strangely out of kilter with the younger, environmentally conscious activists. Benoît Hamon (36.21% on 22nd January) emerged as the only candidate with a real campaign dynamic, diffused by original ideas on political ecology, social protection (the ‘universal revenue’), social liberalization ( the legislation of cannabis, a new visa regime for refugees) constitutional reform (the suppression of article 16 of the 1958 constitution, before the eventual creation of a 6th Republic) and European relaunch (the ‘renegotiation’ of the Fiscal Compact Treaty [TSCG], and the renunciation of all debt contracted since 2008). Hamon’s campaign gathered momentum explicitly on the promise to revive a Socialist vision and programme, with its aspirational quality but distant relationship with reality. Rather like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Hamon’s appeal lies with those (often very young) sympathisers and activists engaged in re-thinking the future of a progressive left party to be built on the basic foundations of the Socialist Party.  A long spell of opposition would allow the return to a form of ideological purity – or at least a regeneration of ideas and personnel. The success of Hamon’s campaign was testified by the changing tone of the three televised debates between the candidates prior to the first round: there was a clear shift from the All Against Valls mood in the first two debates, to an All Against Hamon convergence in the third and final debate. For the record, the other candidates were Vincent Peillon (6.83%); François de Rugy (3.88%) Sylvie Pinot (1.99%) and Jean-Luc Benhamais (1.01%).

What about the broader impact of the results of the primary election? The likely victory of Hamon on 29th January is, on balance, good news for Emmanual Macron, as a Hamon victory will accelerate the move by many anxious PS deputies to En Marche!, in the hope of gaining the Macron label in time for the 2017 legislative elections. Look for movements as early as this week, before Hamon’s consecration. The result of the primary will have a more marginal impact, perhaps, on Mélenchon’s electorate; the leader of La France insoumise has built a solid electorate that is unlikely to cede to the Siren of Hamon. Indded, Mélenchon might even benefit from Hamon standing down in his favour in the broader interests of left unity and survival.   In the unlikely event that Valls overcomes Hamon on the second round, the main beneficiary would be Mélenchon, with Macron as a marginal loser.

The real action is playing itself out at the margins of the PS primary, initially envisaged as a mechanism to force recalcitrant Socialist electors to support Hollande’s reviewed bid for election. The former Left Front leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has demonstrated once again his talent for mobilizing the radical left against the party apparatuses of the PCF and PS. Mélenchon is currently on 13-14% in the polls, well ahead of any of the Socialist pretenders. Mélenchon pales beside the Macron phenomenon, the object of a future blog. The former Industry minister is currently polling up to 21% in the surveys, not far behind Fillon (23-24%) or Le Pen (25-26%).  If Macron might be likened in some respects to a French Tony Blair[vi] the underlying message from the Socialist primaries is that it might be too late to engage in a renovation of the existing Socialist Party. The PS has been a party searching for a role for a very long time; each episode of governmental power has produced an existential crisis that was, in its time, theorized by Jean Jaurès and Léon Blum. The endogenous crisis is combined with a continent-wide crisis of social democracy. The decline of the Greek PASOK from over 40% to 5% in the course of a few years serves as a permanent reminder of the fragility of the govnermental left, as does the inability of the Spanish PSOE to form a government in 2016, as well as the current state of Corbyn’s Labour Party. The French Socialists have lost the core material bases of their organizational power over the past five years (defeats in the 2014 municipal elections and the 2015 departmental and regional elections) and look set to be decimated in terms of their parliamentary representation in 2017. Is there a way back from the brink, as occurred following the calamitous 1993 legislative elections (reduced to 67 deputies, but winning office four years later)? Or has the moment come for a lasting realignment, a quadrille quadipolaire, where key competition will occur between a robust left movement around Mélenchon, a reformed ‘ progressive’  centre party (En Marche!) a Conservative movement mobilizing on the themes of economic liberalism and social conservatism and a national populist movement, in the form of Le Pen’s Front national?  If the electoral setback is swift and thorough enough, the PS need not even put itself though the agony of self-introspection.

Notes

[i] Figures reported from an ELABE survey in BFM News 22nd January 2017

[ii]  The Belle Alliance Populaire was created with a view to broadening participation in the primary beyond the PS. In the event  the primary attracted Sylvie Pinel, of the Left Radicals,  and Francois de Rugy and Jean-Luc Benhamais, two independent ecologists.

[iii]  These figures are those of the latest round of the CEVIPOF IPSOS Sopra Steria survey, published in Le Monde on 20th January 2017. This survey, a longitudinal panel with 20,000 respondents, provides the most robust insights into the evolution of the campaign.

[iv]  Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme Un Président ne devrait pas dire ca… Paris : Stock, 2016.  Various confidential state secrets were revealed by these two Le Monde journalists in this book which did much to damage further Hollande’s reputation.

[v]  Alistair Cole,  ‘The French Socialist Party and its Radical Ambiguity’ French Politics, Culture and Society, vol. 29, no. 3, 2011, pp. 29-48.

[vi] Gérard Grunberg, ‘Il réarticule libéralisme et solidarité’  Le Point 19th  January 2017.

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2017

This post marks the third time that I have written about selected presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents (see 2015 and 2016 here), so that it is now becoming a tradition of its own. This year’s speeches differed only little in focus from last year, as the refugee crisis and security concerns continue to determine the public debate, yet speeches took a more political tone in a number of countries. At the same time, this year also saw some ‘firsts’ – newly-elected Estonian president, Kersti Kaljulaid, gave her first New Year’s address and Austria (for the first time in decades) had no New Year’s address at all.

Slovak president Andrej Kiska reading out his New Year´s Day Address | © prezident.sk

Presidential Christmas and New Year’s Addresses tend to be a mixture of reflections on the political and societal events of the last year and general good wishes for the festive period or the new year. While the previous year had already seen an increase in political content, this year even more presidents referred to concrete events and policies – first and foremost the terrorist attack in Berlin on 19 December 2016. German president Gauck’s Christmas message was clearly dominated by the attack, yet stressed the need for compassion, highlighted efforts by volunteers both after the Berlin attacks and in helping refugees, and called for unity over sweeping judgments. Slovak president Andrej Kiska dismissed xenophobic sentiments in his New Year’s address even more directly, acknowledging a deviation from usual end-of-year reflection and highlighting his disagreements with the government over the issue. The Slovak government has not only strongly opposed taking in any refugees, but also includes the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and recently passed a more restrictive church law specifically targeting Muslims (which was promptly vetoed by Kiska). Quite in contrast to these conciliatory words, Czech president Zeman used the opportunity claim a ‘clear link between the migrant wave and terrorist attacks’. In his 20-minute address – far longer than any other presidential holiday speech – from the presidential holiday residence at Lany, he also attacked the governing coalition, spoke about banning internet pornography and expressed his admiration for Donald Trump and his ‘aggressive style’.

The Christmas speech of Polish president Andrzej Duda also took an unusually political turn as it started off with much praise for government reforms. Although the Polish government, too, refused to accept refugees under the EU compromises, references to EU crises remained relatively vague. Remarkable, however, was Duda’s call to ‘respect the rules of democracy’ which was clearly aimed at the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition which criticised what they in turn perceived as the unconstitutional behaviour of the governing party (see here). The address by Duda’s Croatian counterpart, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, was also in remarkable as she devoted the entirety of her speech to condemning recent increases in intolerance and the simultaneous glorification of past fascist and communist regimes which she then linked to the fact that “busloads of young people are leaving the country each day” and called the government and all parties to action. Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella likewise urged parties to take action  to avoid the ‘ungovernability’ of the country, yet mostly focussed on listing the concerns of citizens and various tragic deaths rather than providing a very positive message.

Bulgarian president Rosen Plevneliev used his last New Year’s address as president to highlight more positive achievements, such as the ten year anniversary of EU accession (also mentioned by Romanian president Iohannis in his very brief seasons’ greetings), a rise in GDP and successful completion of the presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. While stressing the need for further reform, President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades also provided a more positive message focused on the progress in the negotiations about a reunification of the island, also thanking people for their sacrifices in implementing the financial bail-out completed in 2016.

Hungarian President Ader with sign language interpreter (left); Latvian president Vejonis with his wife (right)

On a different note, Hungarians and Latvians might have been surprised to see additional faces in the recordings of presidential messages: Hungarian president Janos Ader’s speech was simultaneously interpreted into sign language by deaf model and equality activist Fanni Weisz standing in the background, whereas Latvian president Raimonds Vejonis even shared parts of the address with his wife. For those interested in ‘pomp and circumstance’, the address by Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro is highly recommended as the recording features a praeludium and a postludium by a military band in gala uniform inside the presidential palace (Youtube video here).

Last, for the first time in decades Austria lacked a New Year’s address by the president. Although Alexander Van der Bellen was finally elected president in early December, he will only be inaugurated on 26 January 2016. His successor, Heinz Fischer, finished his term already on 8 July 2016 and the triumvirate of parliamentary speakers (which incidentally include Van der Bellen’s unsuccessful challenger, Norbert Hofer), who are currently serving collectively as acting president, did not provide any New Year’s greetings.

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A full list of speeches is available for download here.

France – Bye bye Mr Sarkozy, hello Mr Nobody

The ‘open primaries of the Right and the Centre’, fought over two Sundays in November 2016, have challenged two unwritten ‘rules’ of the French Fifth Republic. First, the Gaullist one of the direct relationship between the providential leader and the people unmediated by party. In this tradition, the leader emerges naturally to represent the force of history; the party is a presidential rally to organize support for the exceptional leader. If we can recognize the Gaullist genealogy of this style in the history of the French right, for a long-time French Presidents have no longer corresponded to this ideal.  The vibrant primary elections revealed a movement that is anything but subordinate: whether this is interpreted in terms of a confrontation of powerful Barons or a successful exercise in direct democracy. The hollowing of the Gaullist myth is closely associated with a second unwritten rule: that control of a political party produces a natural advantage for a candidate seeking election to the presidency. Mitterrand in 1981, Chirac in 1995, Sarkozy in 2007 all represented versions of this truism. The introduction of the primary elections, first for the PS in 2006 and 2011, and now for the Right and the Centre (in fact, LR), have laid bare the shifting foundations of presidential power. The success of the PS primaries in 2011 occurred because the voting constituency was broadened well beyond the traditional party members and activists; the party itself was fairly marginal to the procedure and reconfigured on the basis of the results in the primary election. Capturing control of the party is no longer an adequate gauge of the ability to stand as the party’s candidate; Martine Aubry controlled the party from 2008, but failed to win the primary and secure the PS nomination in 2011.  Sarkozy’s return to take control of UMP/LR in 2014 was accompanied by a commitment to introduce primaries, forced upon him by Alain Juppé and François Fillon.

The ‘open primaries of the right and the centre’ were fought over two rounds on 20th and 27th November.  The fortunes of the candidates oscillated widely once the campaign began in earnest in late summer, but most had assumed that the run-off would pit former President Nicolas Sarkozy against former Premier Alain Juppé. In the event, Francois Fillon, long considered as the outsider, even as Mister Nobody (in the charming opinion of former President Sarkozy), emerged in powerful first position (44.1%), making the opinion pollsters the first losers of this primary election. The first round results were widely interpreted as a surprise. ‘Speedy Sarko’ was the main victim. In a previous blog, I wondered whether Sarkozy was on the road to nowhere, with an identity focused campaign aimed at siphoning potential FN voters but ignoring core socio-economic concerns.  The maneuver fell flat:  Sarkozy managed to poll just 20.7%, producing an abrupt and immediate end to his political career and unlikely resurrection. The second unanticipated result of the first round lay in the counter-performance of Alain Juppé (28.6%), who had appeared withdrawn (even complacent) throughout the campaign and who clearly expected to be present, in a commanding position, on the second round against a damaged Sarkozy. In the event, François Fillon emerged strongly with over 44.1% on the first round, though he had been trailing with barely 10% in fourth place a few weeks earlier. For the record: the other candidates were each squeezed by the triumvirate in head: Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet  (2.6%) narrowly outperformed Bruno le Maire (2.4%) to win the battle of the forty-somethings (les quadras). The wooden spoon was reserved for the unfortunate Jean-Francois Copé (0.3%), the former UMP General Secretary (elected against Fillon for that position in controversial circumstances in 2012), who trailed the Christian Democrat party candidate Jean-Francois Poisson (1.5%).  Fillon’s second round triumph – with 66.5% of votes counted at the time of writing –  was built, amongst other factors,  upon a high rate of transfer of first round Sarkozy voters.

Who were the winners and losers of the primary and what are the likely consequences?  François Fillon was the obvious main winner, elected on 27th November as the LR candidate with two-thirds of the 4,300-000-4,500,000 voters who participated in the primaries.  On the first round, Fillon came ahead in 11 out of 13 regions (all save New Aquitaine [Juppé] and Corsica [Sarkozy]), 87 départements in metropolitan France, against 7 for Alain Juppé (essentially in the New Aquitaine region) and 2 for Nicolas Sarkozy (Corsica, Overseas). The results delivered a favourite son effect for Fillon, who registered impressive scores in Pays de la Loire region [59.7%], where he arrived in first position in each department, achieving a peak of 78.5% in the Sarthe (that he had represented as a deputy).[1] Rather than its spatial concentration, however, the core lesson to be drawn from Fillon’s first round vote lies in its broad national spread. Fillon led in regions such as Brittany that might have been expected to lean to the centrist Juppé, as well as in the former Sarkozy strongholds on the Mediterranean coast.  Alain Juppe  was runner up in most regions, except in the geographically specific south-west (6 of the 12 départements of the New Aquitaine region, the zone of influence of Bordeaux), along with a stronger performance in Paris region, where the Ile-de-France regional leader Valérie Pecresse had rallied to him.  Sarkozy could draw cold comfort: the former President was beaten into third position almost everywhere, including in the historic stronghold of Hauts-de-Seine. The pole position of the first round was transformed into a triumph on the second, with Fillon attracting the support of three million electors and arriving in first position almost everywhere (except the Gironde, Corrèze and Guyane départements).

How Fillon won relatively clear. Why Fillon won is a rather more complex question, involving three distinct levels of analysis: the personal, the programmatic/ideological and the conjectural.  First, the personal equation. Fillon was widely lauded for a well prepared campaign, a detailed and serious policy programme and a professional performance during the three TV debates between the 7 candidates.  In the three presidential debates, Fillon appeared at least as ‘presidential’ as any other candidate.  By surviving as Sarkozy’s premier for 5 years (2007-2012), Fillon had demonstrated personal endurance. Though Sarkozy’s treatment of his premier (or ‘collaborator’, as described in  2007) produced lasting tensions, the fact remained that Fillon and Sarkozy had shared control of the State for five years and the ex-President rallied without hesitation.  At the level of programme and ideology, Fillon claimed to have a programme that would create a ‘rupture’ with existing social and economic models (a rather similar claim had been made ten years earlier by Sarkozy).  Fillon presented his programme as radical, most explicitly during the second round debate against Juppé.  The centre of gravity of the Fillon programme lay in his attention to the socio-economic and state reform axis. The successful candidate advocates strongly the need to reduce the power of the State in the economy, to bring down company taxation, to end the 35 hour week, to weaken social protection, to support business and enterprise, to engage in a radical reform of the Labour market (including a thoroughgoing revision of the Labour code) and to shed 500,000 jobs in the public sector.  In fairness, the leading candidates were arguing over shades of blue. There was a relative cohesion between the economic policy stances of the main candidates, each promising a version of the most economically liberal programme since the Chirac’s RPR-UDF government (1986-88). The debate between the candidates centered on the extent and rhythm of the shrinkage of the public sector (500,000 jobs, in the case of Fillon, 250,000 for Juppé) and how far and fast to reduce public expenditure. Both leading candidates agreed on the need to increase the retirement age to 65.

This relative cohesion in relation to economic policy was disrupted by clearly distinctive positions on foreign policy and controversy over the role of Putin’s Russia that Fillon seeks to bring back into the orbit of European diplomacy.  A secondary line of cleavage concerned multiculturalism and cultural liberalism.  While Juppé positioned himself as a candidate open to the diverse origins of contemporary and advocated a respect for minorities, Fillon  sent out strong identity markers to provincial Catholic conservative electorate (notably on family issues and adoption), though he refused to be drawn on abortion or  gay marriage. Fillon’s  programme claims to be tough on Islamic terrorism. It rejects aspects of multi-culturalism and adopts an assimilationist ideology not far from that of Sarkozy. The convergences between Sarkozy and Fillon (strengthened by the rallying of the former to the latter) were demonstrated by the controversy over Fillon’s proposals to rewrite history programmes in Schools to encourage a ‘national narrative’.  If Fillon did little to hide his background as a provincial Catholic conservative, the economic and state reform dimension are clearly placed in the forefront. In the French context, this cocktail of economic liberalism and social conservatism raises immediate comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, a comparison willingly embraced by Fillon.

Finally, the conjectural dimension needs to be taken into account. Rather paradoxically, Fillon benefited from being off focus for the main media battles between Juppé and Sarkozy, at least insofar as he was subject to less penetrating media analysis. Fillon occupied the central position in a political landscape marked by a shift to the political right (demonstrated in numerous surveys and notably the CEVIPOF-IPSOS-SOPRA-STORIA-Le Monde 2017 election survey). In the light of recent debates over populism and anti-politics in the wake of BREXIT and Trump, Fillon might be read as an anti-populist candidate.  The ‘populist’ candidate who celebrated Trump’s election was Sarkozy, not Fillon, the provincial, Catholic, conservative promising economic pain in the interests of national revival.  Surveys demonstrated that the kind of national identity politics Sarkozy was proposing were important to some electors, but less important than social and economic issues to electors as a whole. If Juppé scored strongly on the latter, and Sarkozy on the former, Fillon was seen by supporters as being the only candidate able to bridge the identity and economic concerns of the electorate.

Set against the standard of François Fillon, the other leading candidates faltered. Juppé suffered from his open advocacy of the alliance of the Right and the Centre. Sarkozy’s attacks against Juppé on the basis that he would ally with the centrist François Bayrou hit the mark for a fraction of the LR electorate. Juppé’s espousal of l’identité heureuse and pleas in favour of multi-cultural tolerance were notable virtues… but went against the spirit of the times in the ranks of the Conservative electorate.   Was Juppé damaged by the ‘Socialists’ that openly declared they would vote for him? Quite possibly.

For his part, Sarkozy encountered determined resistance, including from the approximately 10-15% of electors who declared themselves to be on the left. Sarkozy stands as one of the most influential politicians of his time, a reformer who energized the French presidency, but whose reforms have not really stood the test of time , with some exceptions. Will Sarkozy be remembered as the tax-cutting President who raised the fiscal burden over the course of his presidency? As the economic liberal who turned to state intervention? As the friend of diversity who ended up excluding those who challenged the quasi-colonialist belief of ‘our ancestors the Gaullists’? As the campaign gathered pace, Sarkozy appeared as a ‘has been’, as did Juppé, the former premier whose welfare reforms had brought the country to a standstill in 1995.

Smaller games were also being played. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet  (2.6%) came ahead of Bruno le Maire (2.4%) to represent the quadras, a  minor but important win. NKM’s performance was probably enough to ensure a bright future, even though she backed Juppé on the run-off. On the other hand, the rallying of Valerie Pécresse, President of the Ile-de-France region and former Fillon supporter, to Juppé days before the first round remains an enigma. There is a more general point: though no-one can predict the victor, the consequences of choices are long lasting. Witness the rallying of Sarkozy’s lieutenants to Fillon as soon as the first round results were known.  The longer-term consequences of the primary elections on restructuring the structure of political opportunities are considerable: the 2011 PS primary demonstrated that presence in the primary ensured a political future. It is not sure, though, that the 0.3% obtained by Copé will be of much use (apart from the therapeutic benefit of having been free to fight the primary and witness the downfall of Sarkozy).

Les Républicains as an organisation emerged as another winner. There were over 4,200,000 voters on the first round (some 9% of the total electoral body), a figure that increased somewhat on the second round. Nobody contested the legitimacy of the process, unlike the  Fillon- Copé spat for the leadership for the UMP four years earlier.  The High Authority for the organization of the primary managed the process in a neutral way and rose to the logistical challenge (apart from running out of ballot papers and envelopes, in Paris notably). The first ever primary election for the mainstream right appeared to give an electoral boost to the victorious candidate, in advance of an anticipated victory in May 2017. Finally, the primary produced a turnover of almost 17,000,000 euros (on the basis of 8,500,000 electors paying 2 euros each) half of which would be drawn upon the Fillon in the presidential election campaign itself.

The immediate polls carried out in the aftermath of Fillon’s election pointed to a comfortable second round victory for the LR candidate against Marine Le Pen. But being installed as favourite this far in advance is a mixed blessing – as Alain Juppé discovered to his cost in the ‘primary of the Right and  the Centre’.

Notes

[1] Le Monde ‘Primaire de la Droite: Résultats du premier tour’, 22 November 2016.

France – Nicolas Sarkozy: On the Road To Nowhere?

The best laid plans go astray.  Nicolas Sarkozy, the former President of the French Republic who vowed never to return to politics, is staring at the possibility of not winning the primary election for the Republican nomination in the 2017 presidential election. The two rounds of the primary will take place on 20th and 27th  November and the next two blog entries will concentrate on the campaign and results.  At the moment, the eventual result is wide-open, with nearly all commentators predicting a victory either for Alain Juppé, Chirac’s former Prime Minister, or for Nicolas Sarkozy, French President from 2007-2012.  Seven candidates (Nicolas Sarkozy, François Fillon, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Alain Juppé, Jean-François Copé, Bruno Le Maire et Jean-Frédéric Poisson) have qualified for the contest, which will be fought over two rounds; in the event of no one candidate obtaining a majority on the first round, a run-off contest will occur to designate the LR candidate.  12228 voting booths will allow an expected 2,000,000 – 4,000,000 electors to express their preferences. The deep unpopularity of the incumbent President, Francois Hollande, and the deleterious state of relations on the left bestows a vital interest on the Republican primary. The victor of the Republican primary stands a very good change be being elected the next President, given the state of unpopularity and division on the left and the ‘glass ceiling’ that is likely to prevent the National Front (FN- Front national) candidate, Marine le Pen, from victory even in the likely event that she reaches the second round.

Sarkozy ought to be in pole position: after a couple of years crossing the desert (literally, in terms of his involvement richly remunerated conferences in Qatar) the former president fought back to win control of the UMP (Union pour une majorite populaire – Union for a Popular Majority) in November 2014, renaming the movement the Republicans. The shift in nomenclature was intended to indicate a shift away from the pretension of the old UMP to be the Union of the Right and the Centre and to create a tougher organisation able to compete with the FN, while retaining the bulk of existing support. As one decade earlier, when he had captured control of the UMP, Sarkozy recognised the centrality of party; his main opponents were either unable (Fillon), or uninterested (Juppé) in competing at this level.  Controlling the main party – the UMP turned Republicans – was intended to act as a trampoline to smooth a trouble-free nomination of Sarkozy as the presidential candidate. Sarkozy is well aware of the resources the control of the main party can bring: the definition of the party’s platform that the candidates are supposed to respect, the material resources used for meetings, etc. Sarkozy used these resources fully during the period of almost two years at the helm of the LR, before standing down as General-Secretary with the declaration of his candidacy in late August 2016.

The first obstacle to Sarkozy’s grand design (of re-election) was that he could not prevent the process of primary elections. The Republican barons were able to impose the primary election on Sarkozy, for once forced to respect party rules, notwithstanding his resistance of any form of institutionalisation while President (Haegel, 2013). Trailing Alain Juppé in the various opinion surveys carried out over the summer, the primary campaign was supposed to allow Sarkozy to impose his political leadership and policy choices on the other candidates and rally the Republican base in support of his energetic candidacy. Consistent with his reputation as a man of action, Sarkozy portrayed himself as the Bulldozer, who would define the terms of the debate in the French primaries and impose his themes on the campaign as a whole.

As the primary campaign has unfolded, however, things have not gone exactly to plan. True, no-one can doubt the former President’s energy or the enthusiasm of his supporters. In contrast, the other leading contenders – front-runner Alain Juppé, former premier Francois Fillon, the rising Bruno Le Maire – have attracted less media attention and have been strangely absent during key moments. The spate of terrorist attacks during the summer of 2017 (Nice, St Etienne de Rouvray) played to Sarkozy’s agenda; the former President occupied the media limelight during this vital period.  Fuelled by a campaign based on values and identity, Sarkozy began chipping away at Juppé’s initially strong lead in the primary polls (de Montvalon, 2016).

Who will win the Republican primary is a question of key importance and this blog will consider the issue more fully in its next editions.   Sarkozy is obviously one of the leading contenders. Alain Juppé, former foreign minister and Prime Minister, remains the frontrunner in the primary elections, but appears curiously absent from public debates. The embittered former premier Francois Fillon’s well-prepared campaign has thus far failed to take off.  Sarkozy has a better implantation in the movement than any of the contenders; he boasted the support of more parliamentarians, party élus and activists than any of the other primary candidates. No-one would write Sarkozy off at this stage and he remains one of the likely contenders on the second round (assuming a second round is necessary).  But there are an impressive number of obstacles that might prevent Sarkozy from winning the primary.

Sarkozy’s ideological positioning is one. The secret of Sarkozy’s successful 2007 presidential campaign  lay in his capacity to transcend traditional debates between left and right and to accompany the debates over ‘values’ with precise positions in the field of society, economy and welfare. The period immediately following his election was that of the France of all the talents, the opening up to the left and civil society actors, the promotion of the new generation of black and beur politicians such as Rachida Dati and Rada Yade.  In 2012, on the other hand, Sarkozy was defeated on the second round of the 2012 presidential election on the basis of a much narrower programme of values and national identity, the strategy that he appears to be adopting again for 2017. To be fair, the linking of immigration and insecurity represents a fairly consistent strand of his political trajectory: his role as a tough Interior minister under premiers Raffarin (2002-2004) and Villepin (2005-2007); the creation of the ephemeral Ministry of Immigration and National Identity in 2007; the infamous Grenoble speech of 2010, which marked the beginning of a much harsher position on issues of immigration, migration and security were all testament to this. The early campaign for the republican primaries (that prefigures an eventual Sarkozy campaign) has been dominated by identity-focussed debates over the ‘Burkhini[1]’, over special diets in schools, the wearing of Muslim veils in universities and provocations about national origins designed to challenge the desire to assimilate into the national community by those with diverse ethnic, especially Muslim,  origins[2]. The game is a dangerous one. Will electors prefer the original (Marine le Pen) to the copy? Will a values-based campaign harden opposition from vital centre-right and centre-left electors, disillusioned with Hollande, whose support the Republican candidate might need to win the 2017 presidential election. Falling too far to the right is likely to provoke an autonomous centre-Right candidacy (François Bayrou), or even sustain the nascent presidential bid that Hollande’s former economy minister Emmanuel Macron makes little secret of preparing.   Beyond the substance of this debate lie the questions of the sincerity of Sarkozy’s ideological positioning. One policy in particular exemplifies this instrumental use of ideology: though responsible as President  for the important Grenelle environmental agreements of 2008, Sarkozy has recently been calling into question human responsibility for global warming.

The old recipes are the best. Sarkozy is playing to the hard core Republican electorate that – he calculates – is most likely to vote in the primary election. The substantive issue remains, however. Sarkozy is a highly credible first round candidate in the primaries:  there is little doubt that the Sarkozy core will be mobilised and their champion be present on the second round of the primary election. But Sarkozy will need to create a very powerful first round dynamic to stand a chance of obtaining the nomination after the second round. His likely adversary, Alain Juppé, will be likely to be able to count on the rallying of defeated contenders such as Fillon, Kosciusko-Morizet  and probably Le Maire et Copé as well, in an Anything but Sarkozy movement. And there remains some doubt whether Sarkozy will actually be able to stand as a candidate. Sarkozy’s judicial worries are never far from the surface, an obstacle vividly recalled in the last week of September (Goar, 2016). On Monday 26th September, Sarkozy’s former chief of Police (Bernard Squarcini) was arrested on suspicion of abusing his influence. On Tuesday 27th September, the weblog Mediapart produced documentary evidence that again linked the financing of Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign will Colonel Gaddhafi.  On Thursday 29th September, Sarkozy’s former guru Patrick Buisson published a damaging account of his years in the Elysée as one of Sarkozy’s key advisors (Buisson, 2016); Buisson notably criticised the political insincerity, emotional insecurity and capacity for dirty tricks of his former master. On 30th September, Jean-Francois Copé, former General-Secretary of the UMP, published a harsh interview implying that the Bygmalion funding scandal (2012) was entirely due to the incapacity of the 2012 candidate to control campaign expenditure. If it is unlikely that these legal worries will come to court before the end of the presidential campaign, they are likely to weigh heavily in the background.  In the past, Sarkozy has rebounded against adversity and such an outcome must not be excluded on this occasion either. Playing the victimisation card might help Sarkozy in the short run, but there is a long way to go before he moves back into the Elysée palace.

References

de Montvalon, J.-B. (2016) ‘Nicolas Sarkozy porté par la dynamique de sa campagne’ Le Monde, 27 September.

Goar, M. (2016) ‘La semaine où Sarkozy a été rattrapé par son passé’ Le Monde  30 September.

Buisson, P. (2016) La Cause du peuple Paris: Perrin.

Haegel, F. (2013) ‘Political Parties: The UMP and the Right’, in Alistair Cole, Sophie Meunier and Vincent Tiberj (eds.) Developments in French Politics 5 Basingstoke: Palgrave, pp.  88-103.

[1] The Burkhini is a Muslim-swimsuit that covers the entire body. In the wake of the Nice attacks on July 14th 2016, several Republican mayors adopted municipal decrees forbidding the wearing of these outfits on France’s beaches. These municipal decrees were ruled  unlawful by the Council of State.

[2] In a controversial speech in September, Sarkozy remarked that ‘the Gauls are our ancestors’ and anybody who contests this should have no place in France.

Michel Rocard: The man who never became President

Michel Rocard: the Man who never became President

Few and far between are the politicians whose passing away (2nd  July 2016) have evoked such unanimity. Politicians from premier Valls to former President Sarkozy are falling over themselves to praise the wisdom, foresight and modernity of the former Socialist premier.  A national day of remembrance, held on 7th July, is a rare honour usually reserved for former Presidents. Michel Rocard can boast a powerful legacy, indeed,  in terms of providing an intellectual underpinning and political standard for French-style social liberalism, boasting a solid reformist record as premier (1988-1991) and leaving an enduring political legacy. Rocard also did much to contribute towards cultivating an economic culture within the left. As former premier Lionel Jospin observed in his tribute: François Mitterrand might have dominated Michel Rocard in political terms, but in view of the policies implemented under Socialist governments since 1982, Rocard won the economic battle’. [1].  

History may or may not retain the failure of his overarching ambition to be elected President.  He was, indeed, a presidential candidate, polling 3.61% as the PSU’s representative in the 1969 presidential election (narrowly short of the 5.1% for the SFIO’s Gaston Defferre). Ultimately, however, Rocard might be remembered as the man who never became President.  Rocard’s contest with Mitterrand for ascendancy within the Socialist Party was a defining moment of modern French politics- and he lost.  Control of the PS presidential candidacy in 1981 was one of the key prizes at stake in the bitter struggle between Mitterrand and Rocard for control of the Socialist party between 1978 and 1981.  The latter’s experience in 1978-1980 suggested the limits of external popularity as a lever to break the hold of the existing organisation on the party apparatus[2]. The strategy adopted in 1978-1980 (in short one of using external popularity to influence the choice of the party’s presidential candidate) failed then, but acted as a precursor to the primary movement which swept French political parties after 2006.

Michel Rocard was as an important personality in the history of the French left. He came to prominence as General Secretary of the small yet highly influential party, the Unified Socialist Party (Parti socialiste unifié – PSU), a party he led from 1967-1974. Though he eventually joined the PS in 1974, and led an influential group of supporters, he remained a marginal force within the Socialist Party, arguably even during his short period as First Secretary (1993-95). But the numerical inferiority of Rocard’s supporters within the PS must not disguise the influence of the movement. Rocard was the symbol for many of a specific tendency within the French left – the deuxième gauche  – which came to signify an alternative narrative of the French left to that focussed on capturing the commanding heights of the state and the economy.  The movement was strongly influenced by the legacy of Pierre Mendès France, the radical premier of the fourth Republic (1954-55) who set in motion France’s decolonisation (Morocco, Tunisia) and who first insisted on the need for economic rigorous economic management as a necessary condition for social progress.  As a student at Sciences Po, the young Rocard was active in the UNEF student union, and evenly briefly joined the SFIO, the Socialist Party he soon quit (in 1958) over the stance adopted to the Algerian war. Unlike many intellectuals, he never became a member of the PCF. Anti-colonialism was the cornerstone to this alternative left emerging to contest the SFIO. The Autonomous Socialist Party (PSA) was created in 1958 as a breakaway group from the SFIO; joined by various minor political clubs, it became the Unified Socialist Party (PSU) in 1960. After rising to national-level prominence after the Rencontres de Grenoble (1966), Rocard became General Secretary of the PSU in 1967, and led the movement through the tumultuous events and aftermath of May ’68. With the aim of renovating the left from outside of the main existing party, the SFIO, Rocard’s PSU was directly in competition with Francois Mitterrand’s Federation of the Democratic and Socialist left (FGDS (1965-68) and later with the Socialist Party (Parti socialiste – PS, captured in 1971 by Mitterrand). Mitterrand won that initial battle and many subsequent ones.

The fact remains that Rocard was not a player at the 1971 PS Epinay congress that redefined the landscape of the French left. He was never at ease with the central strategy of Union of the Left (the alliance between Socialists and Communists), but a version of this strategy was successful.  Rocard lost politically in the first instance, his route barred by a determined François Mitterrand, tactically Rocard’s superior. Much has been written about the relationship between Francois Mitterrand and Michel Rocard. Was this mainly a question of personal rivalries and style? In part undoubtedly. But it also concerned core issues of strategy (the Union of the Left and the necessity or not of allying with the PCF); of political and economic culture (the respective role of the State and the Market), of macroeconomic choices (for example the wisdom of using nationalisation as an industrial tool) and of the role of the party.   In many of these areas of controversy the Rocardian approach was evidence-based, evaluative and experimental.  In a prophetical landmark speech to the PS congress in Nantes (1977) Rocard warned the left not to deny the existence of economic constraints that would necessarily influence future government choices: “If the left is unprepared for power, if it refuses to recognise the importance of powerful constraints, if it refuses to admit the technical nature of many policy problems, then it will face failure” [3]

The deuxième gauche was classically formulated in Rocard’s speech to the same Socialist Party Congress of Nantes (1977). In this speech Rocard contrasted the two cultures that structure the French left, a statist, centralising culture and a more decentralising experimental one. The second left was initially associated with a Christian left (Left Catholics, but also protestants such as Rocard himself), as well as being a provincial left favourable to decentralisation and distrustful of a republican narrative of uniformity.  The second left was also a movement influenced by the ideas of May ’68, favourable to workplace democracy, social experimentation, the right to difference, local economic development and autogestion. [4] Above all, the second left demonstrated a certain suspicion towards the State and advocated a more systematic role for civil society and local authorities in policy-making.  Certain of the demands of this second left were clearly influenced by the spirit of the times (for example, ‘autogestion’, or workers’ self-management, a theme directly inspired by May ’68). But the basic message (a combination of rigorous economic management, social justice and a demand for transparency and honesty [‘parler vrai’] ) have withstood the passage of time and are more pertinent today than ever.  The heart of the Rocardian method lay in the duty to identify the challenges ahead, to explain and confront reality and to introduce a stronger economic culture within the French left. Hence, the caution he expressed over certain aspects of the 1981-83 reform programme (especially the Mauroy government’s nationalisations of 100% of leading industrial groups, the banking and insurance sectors, rather than taking a 51% controlling stake as argued by Rocard).  Other dimensions of the Mauroy government – decentralisation, workplace democracy –could claim a stronger filiation with the ideas of the second left.

Rocard will also be remembered as a consequential reformer, especially as a reformist Prime Minister from 1988-1991. In 1988. Mitterrand nominated Rocard as the man of the situation, when the PS failed to obtain an overall parliamentary majority in the ensuing parliamentary election.  Rocard was the first premier practising l’ouverture, a mainly unsuccessful attempt to broaden the bases of parliamentary support to incorporate elements of the centre and centre-right. Lacking a clear majority, premier Rocard was forced to rely on the most restrictive clauses of the 1958 constitution, notably article 49/3, which allowed the minority Socialist to survive for a full five year term. [5] All in all, Rocard was a reformist prime minister, with a robust policy record: the introduction of  a minimal income (revenu minimum insertion –RMI), a universal benefit extended for the first time to young people of 18-25; an ambitious programme of reform of the State (the programme of the modernisation of the civil service owes its origins to Rocard, as does the changed statute of the Post Office); and an  important fiscal reform (the creation of the general social contribution [contribution sociale générale –  CSG] to finance  new universal welfare benefits). Such policy activism aggravated an already conflictual relationship between Prime Minister and President (a staple of the fifth Republic) and a stoked a bitter personal animosity between the two men. In 1991, Mitterrand dispensed with the services of Rocard, though the prime minister remained popular.

Rocard’s career continued for two more decades after his resignation from Matignon. He was First Secretary of the Socialist Party, 1993-94; a Socialist MEP from 1994-2009, and served in various Commissions under President Sarkozy. But he never did succeed in imposing his presidential candidacy on the PS (the standard bearers being Jospin in 1995 and 2002; Royal in 2007 and Hollande in 2012).  By this most basic benchmark, he failed. But the legacy is a much more powerful one, in the form of a diffuse network of political and economic personalities, think tanks, ideas,  experts and putative inheritors (including premier Valls and  Industry minister Macron), who are jostling to be recognised as legitimate heir and inheritor. Michel Rocard was an important and influential advocate in the ongoing process of reconciling the left to the economy. He ought to be missed.

[1] Cited in Le Monde, 4th July 2016.

[2] Alistair  Cole (1989)  ‘Factionalism, the French socialist party and the fifth Republic: An explanation of intra‐party divisions’  European Journal of Political Research Volume 17, No. 1, p. 77-94

[3] Rocard’s speech is reprinted in La Nouvelle Revue Socialiste, 27, (1977), pp.69-76; p.70.

[4] Pierre Rosanvallon, L’age de l’autogestion,  Paris : Seuil, 1976 ; Pierre Rosanvallon and Patrick Viveret Pour une nouvelle culture politique  Paris : Seuil, 1977.

[5] Article 49/3 allows a government to stake its confidence on the passage of a parliamentary bill, effectively forcing deputies either to overturn the government, or accept the bill.

Jean-Louis Thiébault – Presidents without popularity: the cases of Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande

This is a guest post by Jean-Louis Thiébault, emeritus professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Lille, France

French presidents are elected by direct universal suffrage. Universal suffrage gives them a strong democratic legitimacy they need to govern. But the last two French Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012) and François Hollande (2012- …) experienced a rapid decline in their popularity just after their election. The fall was therefore premature. It lasted almost until the end of the presidential term. Faced with rising discontent, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande have adopted different strategies to win back their popularity: the first has tended to make his less flamboyant presidency; the second to get out of his initial posture of “normal president”.

The level of popularity of the new president had always been particularly high in the aftermath of the presidential election. It is the “state of grace”. But it is used to denote the moment of political life during which public opinion of a country is largely favorable to a new president who comes to power after an election. Journalists also often speak of the “100 days” as a privileged period for a new elected president (Duhamel and Parodi, 1982). The essential feature of the latest presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, is the steady decline in their popularity, more or less rapidly after their election. In july 2007, a total of 65% were satisfied, what made of Nicolas Sarkozy the most popular president after taking office, with the exception of Charles de Gaulle. Nicolas Sarkozy failed to convert its electoral victory in presidential popularity. Elected with 53,06% of the vote, his popularity as president quickly became less important. The “state of grace” was consumed within six months. With 55% approval rating for his first month in office, François Hollande underperformed all presidents, with the exception of Jacques Chirac in 2002 (51%). But this high level of popularity did not last. In May 2008 and 2009, Nicolas Sarkozy got his most mediocre score since his election with 32% of confidence. From September 2009 to January 2010, the approval rating of the president remained below 30%. The year 2010 was characterized the reactivation of themes on security. But these issues have failed to mobilize public opinion. The end of 2010 was marked by a major rupture. Seduction has deteriorated. Political leaders and communicators can not maintain a media activism for several years (Neveu, 2012).

The evolution of the popularity of Hollande struck by its starting point, particularly low for a president who has been elected. With 55% of approval rating for his first month in office, he was worse than many of the other presidents. He was in a unique situation at the beginning of the term (Mayer and Tiberj, 2015). Six months after he took office, 35% of French people had confidence in François Hollande and 61% do not trust him. Discredit that struck the president was the result of a feeling of absence, or even of stagnation, during the summer of 2012, and dissonances in the government team. All this has contributed to what François Holland, with 35% of confidence, was the weakest president after six months in office. Francois Hollande also known soon a decline in public opinion. In September  and november 2014, his approval rating was 13%. It was the worst approval rating of a president. He faced even a strong sense of disappointment in his own electorate.

The purpose of this second part is to explain the reasons for the continuity of the declining popularity of the two presidents and especially the inability they found to remedy. The means used to regain a certain level of popularity failed. The key to this unpopularity lies not only in the crisis of results of economic and social policies, particularly on the employment front. It is also the result of a divorce between the president and much of its social base that is the real explanation of this strong presidential unpopularity.

The economic factors

The main structural factor of rapid weakening of the popularity curve of the two presidents was the weakness of the French economy, with social consequences in terms of unemployment, budget deficit and public debt. Upon assuming office, the last two presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande faced the consequences of the great economic and financial crisis that began in summer 2008 and which has particularly affected the US but many countries Europe such as France. This is Nicolas Sarkozy who faced the first onslaught of the crisis and has implemented actions to prevent the impact on the French economy. At the end of 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy has focused all its energy trying to limit the spread of the crisis to the whole financial and economic system. This activism on the national and international scene allowed him to stem the precipitous decline of its popularity curve. The management of the crisis during the EU presidency by France allowed him to regain 8 points in some months (41% in January 2009). Yet in early 2010, Nicolas Sarkozy got his most mediocre score since his election with 32% of confidence. The 2010 year was a year of social depression and distrust. For the first time since his election, his situation was delicate.

François Hollande faced also a strong sense of disappointment in public opinion. His disgrace was the result of mass unemployment, debt explosion, loss of competitiveness, a costly social protection system. He hoped to stabilize the unemployment curve. But to really reduce unemployment implied a growth which remained uncertain. Public deficits remained heavily excessive.

The political factors

Nicolas Sarkozy has quickly abandoned the idea of a rupture with the government style of Jacques Chirac, that he never ceased to invoke and which had contributed greatly to his success. Very quickly after the election, the word of rupture disappeared. The president did everything, decided everything. He was all over at the front line. He has developed new practices converging towards a new way of exercising power. From the first weeks of investiture of the new president, the new practices were evident. Formulas have been found to summarize the new exercise of power : “hyperpresidency” (Gordon, 2007), “omnipresidency”, “ultra-presidentialism”. It is this new exercise of presidential power, which has led to criticism. With Nicolas Sarkozy, the domination of the president reached a previously unknown intensity. The first months in office have given to see a real domestication of the prime minister. The choice of ministers was always essentially dictated by the president. The organization of the executive was marked by an impressive number of presidential speeches, announcing the launch of a given reform, a sending of several letters of mission, often not countersigned by the prime minister, to committees of ad hoc experts, the creation of a sort of parallel presidential government (Le Divellec, 2012).

François Hollande wanted to be a “normal president”. He wanted to enjoy the rejection of the highly publicized government style of his predecessor. Shortly after the beginning of the presidency, the one who wanted to differentiate itself from Nicolas Sarkozy has indeed failed. His behavior embodied the non-rupture with the mandate of Nicolas Sarkozy. In the first sixth month of his term, The unpopularity of François Hollande is due to the multiplication of errors, communication blunders, malfunctions and signs of amateurism. The new president had no experience of exercise of power. The explanation for this early unpopularity was often given as being that of a “hollow victory” of the president. He would have won against the demands of the country. The punishment for the incumbent president, Nicolas Sarkozy, would have weighed stronger than the rallying around the socialist candidate, François Hollande, and his program. A more plausible explanation is that as the “state of grace”, that lasts roughly the first hundred days of presidency, is not primarily due to a rally to the winner, to the fact that voters and the media would give a blank check to the candidate nominated by the ballot box. The “state of grace” is also mainly due to the attitude of the opposition. The losing party usually abandon the political battlefield, at least for a time, the outcome of the polls being both the selection of a new president and rejection of the personality, the program and the party of the opponent. But in 2012, right-wing opposition has not remained sluggish (Mayer and Tiberj, 2015).

The unpopularity of the president is not a new phenomenon. It results from excessive expectations that voters have vis-à-vis their president. The origin of these expectations is to look in the institutions of the Fifth Republic, increasingly unsuited to the reality of political life. The main electoral event, the presidential election, opposes candidates who have to believe they can, alone, start the economy, increase the influence of France in the world, combat social inequalities and fight against insecurity. Therefore, victory is priced at basically ambitious and unrealistic campaign promises. And this is unlikely to change, as the goal of the election is to elect a man (or a woman), able to find only solutions to all the problems of France (Grossman, 2014).

Personal factors

Personal factors are related to the behavior of the new president. But in this period of “state of grace”, the president may be led to commit his early mistakes that may have political repercussions, even if it is private business of the president. Thus Nicolas Sarkozy made several mistakes of behavior in the first days after his election, because he was looking for greater transparency of his way of life and his private life. François Hollande wanted to adopt a behavior more suited to the traditional conception of the presidency. But it has experienced rapid setbacks. Abuse of transparency and privacy explains the speed of the collapse of the popularity of the two presidents. For many analysts, Nicolas Sarkozy’s unpopularity was almost all the result of his behavioral style. The same type of judgment was brought for his successor. The unpopularity of François Hollande seems to be reduced in his way to embody the presidential office. Once elected, he appeared out of step with the weight of the office and the gravity of the situation of the country, too peaceful, too conciliatory, too careful or too timid to impose an undisputed leadership.

The international political factors

The predecessors had found in world affairs an autonomy from a domestic politics increasingly constrained. Faced with the growing impotence of the executive, beset by difficulties, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande sought in international relations and defense policy a tranquility that failed to tranlate in the polls. Neither the international crisis caused by Georgia in the 2008 summer, or the financial and economic crisis in the fall of 2008 that Nicolas Sarkozy faced, seriously reversed the inexorable process of decrease of presidential popularity. Yet Nicolas Sarkozy’s foreign policy was characterized by an omnipresence and hyperactivity. Foreign policy under the 5th Republic was always part of the “reserved area” to the president. But the concept has been pushed much further during the Sarkozy presidency. External relations have for four years been decided by the president himself. Personalization has been a key feature of this foreign policy. The foreign ministers were sidelined and forced to make up figuration (Meunier, 2012).

In January 2013, François Hollande decided to intervene militarily in Mali. François Hollande triggered the war for the first time during his term. According to the constitution, the president is the head of the military. It is the president who decides to project the military, and him alone. The rapid deterioration of the situation led the president to intervene. He understood all the political benefit there was to settle the more sustainably as possible in the position of military chief. After his first overseas operation, Francois Hollande has made halting a while, on the ground of French politics, his irresistible erosion in the polls, which resumed a few weeks later. He did not succeed in reversing his image, structurally in deficit in the eyes of French voters (Revault Allonnes, 2015; Boisbouvier, 2015).

In August 2013, eight months after Mali, the president was about to unleash a new war in Syria. François Hollande decided to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad after the massacre with chemical weapons perpetrated on August 21, 2013 in the suburbs of Damascus. The red line that Barack Obama had fixed has been crossed. France was determined to hit Syria. But Barack Obama invoked the trauma of the recent interventions of the American military in Afghanistan and Irak, and the weight of the Congress to justify the need to quickly seek the vote of the latter. Francois Hollande took the opportunity to explain that he had not the slightest intention, for its part, to consult the French parliament. He stated that he had no reason to forego the opportunities offered him by the institutions of the 5th Republic. Due to US dropping, the Syrian crisis has resulted in a major setback for French presidency (Revault Allonnes, 2015a).

The impact of the attacks

In January 2015, after the attacks against Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher, there was a recovery in the popularity of François Hollande. The president had plunged with a popularity of 13% in September 2014. It was the lowest level. In December 2014, he goes back only to 15%. In January 2015, he rebounded to 20%. But this surge did not withstand the test of time. In June 2015, six months after the attacks, his popularity remains still at 19%. It has reconstituted only some part of his popularity. In the days and weeks following the attacks, the president and his ministers have made number of ads on urban  and education policies. But these tendencies lasted a few weeks at most. If the political balance of power was clearly less unfavorable, at least for a time, the president has not used it to launch major public policy projects. From the first hours of the post-11 January, it is mainly in the field of anti-terrorism, in all its facets, that was the replica of the executive (Revault Allonnes, 2015).

To regain a certain level of popularity, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande have used a new communications policy, a new institutional practice, and a rollback of certain public policies.

A new communication policy

The two presidents have taken some measures to regain their popularity, especially the type of communication policy. Indeed, just installed in the Elysee Palace, Nicolas Sarkozy has saturated the media space. He was regarded as a professional, with a strong ability to exploit the media. Moreover, Nicolas Sarkozy was surrounded by a strong communication team. The resources of the president also held the possibilities of influence at its disposal on a range of media, whose owners were close to him. These resources were serving the deployment of a strategy of intense activism, linking media events and announcements of reforms, so that the president had ever the initiation. It was a saturation and permanent campaign strategy (Neveu, 2012).

Early in his term, Sarkozy strongly rejected the theories of Jacques Pilhan on the need to adopt a more reserved attitude in communication (Le Débat, 1995). However, the 2011 year was marked by the return of the influence of the former adviser to François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, who died in 1998 (Bazin, 2009). After four years of exercising power, facing a heavily degraded image in public opinion and trying to conquer again an electorate disappointed by his behavior, Nicolas Sarkozy has managed to make a spectacular change. This strategic shift was imposed on him more than he really wanted. But he had no choice.

François Hollande refused to have an open communication policy (Pingaud, 2013). He wanted to stand out from its predecessor. He wished, in particular through the concept of “normal president”, to give up the temptation of the permanent spectacle of his predecessor. Uncomfortable with the television tool, Hollande has adopted a dated style of communication, therefore so inefficient. He decided therefore to adopt a more open attitude to communication under the influence of a new communication team with Gaspard Gantzer. Arriving at the Elysee Palace in April 2014, he is responsible for leading all presidential communications, for coordinating it after two years and half of difficulties with that of the prime minister, for advising the president on his activities and for working to “strategic management of his public speech” (Revault Allonnes, 2015b)

A new institutional practice

At the beginning of his presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy has developed new practices converging towards a new way of exercising presidential power, the so-called “hyperpresidency”. During the years 2010 and 2011, Nicolas Sarkozy agreed to review thoroughly his model of presidential power. These years were marked by a slight decrease in intensity of the presidential domination. This new practice was a tactic to correct a degraded popularity. The concept of « re-presidentialization» took the place of that of “hyperpresidency”. This term is used by the communication team to show that the president was now all concentrated entirely on his role as president. He gave the impression of wanting to take care of the the essential. Now the president no longer wished to be distracted by the turmoil of media or small events. The objective was clear: to erase the traces of the first years of the five-year period. This new option was associated with an organizational change. Sarkozy decided not to receive the leaders of his party (UMP) every Monday as he was accustomed. The “re-presidentialization” required him to take the height and to be no longer involved in affairs of the majority party. But Nicolas Sarkozy, whose approval rating was in the fall of 2010 at around 25% did not change the prime minister, François Fillon. A presidential mandate is structured around two elections. In the first part of the mandate, the new majority seeks to fulfill the promises of the candidate, and in the second it must value the work of the president. With a new prime minister, it is a new perspective with a new tone and new decisions. A change of prime minister in the 5th Republic started always a new dynamic.

François Hollande wanted to be a “normal president”. He wanted to enjoy the rejection of the « hyperpresidential » style of his predecessor. He has changed the prime minister. The electoral defeat of the 2014 municipal elections gave the final blow to the prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault. François Hollande appointed Manuel Valls as the new prime minister. The idea to give a little space for maneuver and movement structured his choice. The change of prime minister appeared as a way to recapitalize a deficit of public opinion. With Manuel Valls as prime minister, Francois Hollande made the choice to appoint a popular personality while the level of popularity of the president was at a very low level. It is clear that the arrival of Manuel Valls did not change the rule of a public opinion in permanent hostility, or prevent the continued fall of François Hollande in public opinion. He even reached in September 2014 the lowest level ever measured for a president (13%) (Lecerf, 2015). The change of prime minister has not convinced. In fact, the popularity of the prime minister has no more value electorally speaking. Apparently, voters well integrated the institutional rule,  implied by five-year term: the president is at the center of the game and the prime minister is not the fuse he was before 2002 (Mayer and Tiberj, 2015).

 The reversal of some public policies

The best example to explain the reversal of some public policies by Nicolas Sarkozy is furnished by fiscal policies  To rebuild its image over time and regain the favor of the electorate, Nicolas Sarkozy did not hesitate to revisit some decisions made at the beginning of his five-year term, as the tax shield. The tax shield was a key measure, maxing out at 50% of revenue payments to the state by taxpayers under the income tax. On the contrary, tax increases were decided by François Hollande in 2012 and early 2013, which had the effect of increasing the tax burden in 2014. In September 2013, he announced the end of the tax increases. This call for a tax break appeared as a turn to the one which he had announced during his campaign that he would reform tax in France. His intervention was expected after a 2013 summer where discontent against tax increases has been steadily gaining momentum, while blurring settled on the government’s ambitions in this area. The government was to find 6 billion of new taxes to balance the budget, but the finance minister had publicly expressed concern in mid-August 2013, a “tax ras-le-bol” in French. François Hollande acknowledged that in the fall of 2012, given the scale of deficits, an extra effort was requested to taxpayers. He thought it was time to make a tax break.

Conclusion. The downward trend in the popularity of presidents

The unpopularity of presidents has become an habit. One may wonder whether a president can long remain popular face heavy elements that make up the economic and social landscape of France in times of crisis: an unemployment rate of 10%, a decreasing growth, aggravated deficits and debt abysmal. This unpopularity of presidents characterizes a period during which threats strength the anxiety of French people and illustrates the difficulties of governments to curb the course of the economic and social crisis. Structural dissatisfaction seems to have set in French people towards their leaders. Since 2002, none of the presidents have been able to achieve a sustainable relationship of trust with the French voters. A component of this unpopularity notes the difficulty of leaders to address the main concerns of their citizens. This situation is analyzed in terms of another factor. Since the first oil crisis in 1973, there have always been more French people saying that in France, things “tend to go worse” than French people saying they “are improving.” Since 2000, it is common to have more than 80% of French people concerned about the evolution of their country. The unpopularity of the leaders cannot be dissociated from this growing pessimism of citizens. Something new has been added in 2012 to this pessimism. Usually, the election or even the re-election of a president was accompanied by a burst of confidence. This was the case in 2007. Nicolas Sarkozy’s victory then caused a surge of optimism. The negative judgment have focused on another form of breakdown, the loss of illusions by public opinion on the expected benefits of alternation. The lack of enthusiasm for Francois Hollande is also a lasting consequence of the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Given the growing interdependence of France vis-à-vis its European partners, the promises of presidents quickly prove unsustainable. Indeed, the French president can neither revive growth by itself or reform the international finance and, even less, the European treaties. Disappointment is then up to the ambition of the promises. For twenty years now, presidents have a significant popularity at the beginning of their mandate, but this popularity plummets rapidly. Above all, contrary to what may have happened to previous presidents, the last two presidents do not rely and they remain weak. But the institutions are still solid (Grossman, 2014)

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