Tag Archives: France

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.

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)

References

François Bazin, Le sorcier de l’Elysée, l’histoire secrète de Jacques Pilhan. Paris : Plon, 2009.

Christophe Boisbouvier, Hollande l’Africain. Paris : La Découverte, 2015.

Olivier Duhamel et Jean-Luc Parodi, « Dimensions de l’état de grâce », Pouvoirs, Revue française d’études constitutionnelles et politiques, no 20, février 1982, 171-178).

Philip Gordon, « The hyperpresident », The American Interest, november-december 2007, 1-5.

Emiliano Grossman and Nicolas Sauger, « ‘Un président normal’ ? Presidential (in)action and unpopularity in the wake of the great recession », French Politics, vol 12, no 2, 2014, 86-103.

Emiliano Grossman, « Hollande et les sondages : les limites du modèle politique français », Slowpolitix blog, 4 février 2014).

Edouard Lecerf, « 2014 : des tours, des retours», in Olivier Duhamel, Edouard Lecerf, TNS-SOFRES. L’état de l’opinion 2015. Paris : Seuil, 2015, 11-16.

Armel Le Divellec, « Présidence de la République et réforme constitutionnelle. L’impossible ‘rationalisation’ du présidentialisme français », in Jacques de Maillard, Yves Surel (dir.), Les politiques publiques sous Sarkozy. Paris : Les Presses de Sciences Po, 2012, 91-110.

Nonna Mayer et Vincent Tiberj, « Où est passée la gauche ? De la victoire de 2012 à la déroute de 2014 », in Olivier Duhamel, Edouard Lecerf, TNS-SOFRES. L’état de l’opinion 2015. Paris : Seuil, 2015, 17-36.

Sophie Meunier, « La politique étrangère de Nicolas Sarkozy. Rupture de fond ou de style ? », in Jacques de Maillard, Yves Surel (dir.), Les politiques publiques sous Sarkozy. Paris : Les Presses de Sciences Po, 2012, 133-151.

Erik Neveu, « Les politiques de communication du président Sarkozy », in Jacques de Maillard, Yves Surel (dir.), Les politiques publiques sous Sarkozy. Paris : Les Presses de Sciences Po, 2012, 47-69.

Denis Pingaud, L’homme sans com’ . Paris : Seuil, 2013.,

David Revault d’Allonnes (a), Les guerres du président. Paris : Seuil, 2015.

David Revault d’Allonnes (b), « Gaspard Gantzer, le nouveau visage de la com’ présidentielle », Le Monde, 4 février 2015.

« L’écriture médiatique. Entretien avec Jacques Pilhan », Le Débat, no 87, novembre-décembre 1995, 3-24.

France – 2016: President Hollande’s annus horribilis

2016 is turning out to be President Hollande’s Annus horribilis.  The incumbent President’s misfortunes in 2016 appear compounded by the quickening pace of political decline, as the 2017 presidential election approaches. As this blog entry is written, French President François Hollande appears to face an impossible dilemma: to be the first President not to stand for re-election, or to stand as candidate with the danger of not reaching the second round.[1] Hollande’s predicament might be interpreted in terms of a series of inappropriate responses to specific events, in which case the Socialist President is a victim of the normal rhythms of extraordinary times. There are any number of key events to choose from: we consider the aborted constitutional reform of 2016 below.  Hollande’s descent might also be interpreted as the culmination of a series of design faults: the original sin of the mode of election in 2012; the result of a particular style and discourse; the unintended consequences of the political responses to the terrorist attacks on 2015; the longer term impact of economic crisis and the failure to bring down unemployment. All of these factors recall the weak political, partisan and sociological basis of support from the outset. To understand Hollande’s predicament we need thereby to mix levels of analysis: to capture the structural, partisan and political bases of the current presidential weakness, as well as individual responses.

Hollande’s original sin lay in the manner of his election as President in 2012. His 2012 presidential campaign was fought in large part as an anti-Sarkozy referendum, designed to preserve an early opinion poll lead that was mainly built upon a popular rejection of Sarkozy. A majority of second round voters (51%, compared with 31% in 2007) declared that they had voted negatively (for the candidate best placed to prevent the less preferred candidate from being elected) and only a minority declared they had voted positively for their candidate (49%, compared with 69% in 2007). [2] His candidacy was based on his strategic political positioning as being a ‘normal’ candidate and president, a style deliberately adopted to be the counterpart of the flamboyant Sarkozy. Once elected President, however, Hollande experienced a rapid descent from popularity, much faster and more thorough than any previous president. The failure to act during the first 100 days represented a lost opportunity.  He was trapped by the frame of normality during a period of economic crisis; the attraction of a “normal” President who ignored the economic tempest in a wave of enforced optimism soon wore off.   For the 2012 electoral series was fought in a context of economic crisis; voters were almost as pessimistic about the ability of Hollande to ‘improve the situation of the country’ (26%), as they were about Sarkozy (25%). [3]  Hollande’s claim to normality had also involved a commitment to keep his private life out of the public domain, but the public jealously displayed by Valerie Trierweiler, Hollande’s erstwhile partner, destroyed this aspiration very early on. Hollande’s personal judgement was then called into question by a succession of scandals involving leading figures of the Socialist-led government. By far the most important scandal was that of Jerome Cahouzec, the first Budget Minister whose reputation for integrity was destroyed by evidence of a secret bank account in Switzerland (despite his repeated denials).

I have argued elsewhere that the Hollande presidency has been undermined by the weakness of a consistent legitimising discourse[4]. It is unclear to many what Hollande represents. There is a weakness of story-telling, the construction of a coherent narrative to describe and justify governmental action. Is Hollande a traditional social-democrat? There was certainly a sustained effort during the Ayrault premiership (2012-2014) to revive a social-democratic discourse, and to give substance to this by using social-democratic instruments such as the annual social conference between the government, the business associations and the trade unions; the principle of negotiated solutions to labour laws and training, and the state’s involvement in attempting to reduce unemployment by subsidised jobs for young people. The core problem lay in the inability to resolve the most intractable policy issue of them all, unemployment. Hollande’s commitment in 2013 to ‘reverse’ the rising level of unemployment provided a hostage to fortune. By early 2016, no major diminution of the unemployment rate had occurred, with France comparing unfavourably with her main EU partners and competitors. Hollande did not convince as a social-democratic president, not least because of his inability to resolve this most intractable problem of domestic policy.  Was he more successful as a ‘social-liberal’? Hollande began the ‘social-liberal’ turn in 2013 (when a governmental programme, the CICE, first reduced various business taxes) faced with evidence of France’s sluggish economic performance and the tense relations with the business community. The main programme was the pacte de responsabilité in January 2014: 50 billion euros of reductions in business taxes, against the (unfulfilled) expectation that firms would begin hiring workers again. If the social-liberal orientation was determined by Hollande’s choices, the responsibility for justification lay with premier Valls (from April 2014) and increasingly from the ambitious minister of Finance Emmanuel Macron, who steered his own liberalisation programme in 2015.

At the end of December 2015 Hollande obtained some of his best poll ratings since taking office[5]. Hollande has enjoyed the most success with a Republican narrative, centred on education, citizenship, the role of France in the international arena and the Nation. In 2015, Hollande appeared as the embodiment of national unity against the internal and external terrorist threat. The right tone was struck, in the mass rallies of January 11th 2015 in defence of the Republic after the attacks on Charlie- Hebdo and in the convoking of Congress in Versailles, just days after the November 13th outrage.  In his address to the Congress, Hollande received a standing ovation. He also made a dual commitment: to reform the 1958 constitution to provide a firmer footing for the state of urgency[6]; and to deprive terrorists of French nationality (initially those with dual nationality, later on all French nationals). These two related but distinct articles were imagined in order to provide a firm response to terrorist attacks, but also to embarrass the political right into supporting constitutional reform (Hollande’s previous attempt to amend the constitution, to include the reform of regional languages, had failed in 2015 due to the obstruction of the Senate).

Once the dust of the Versailles speech had settled, the dual offensive was doubly offensive to the ‘usual suspects’ (the frondeurs, Martine Aubry, the Socialist mayor of Lille, the ‘left of the left’), but also more generally to Socialist deputies, if not to broader public opinion (which supported the position adapted by the executive on both counts). The proposal to refer to the state of urgency in the 1958 constitution was criticised by some lawyers as providing a constitutional basis for what is by definition an irregular process[7], but these arguments left public opinion indifferent. Hollande’s manoeuvre was designed to rally support from across the political spectrum, in particular from the Republicans whose approval would be necessary to allow any constitutional reform. Here was a potentially popular reform, albeit one that divided constitutionalists, aroused opposition to some of its elements from the Constitutional Council[8] and appeared to strengthen administrative circuits and the police at the expense of legal authority and the judges.  The article would have consecrated the power of the French president to determine what constitutes a state of urgency and minimise parliamentary involvement.

The controversy aroused by the State of emergency was as nothing compared to that of the proposal to deprive terrorists of their French nationality should they be convicted of terrorist crimes. The initial proposal was to remove French nationality from bi-national citizens convicted of terrorist attacks. Faced with firm opposition, especially from Socialist deputies, an amended proposal was introduced whereby any convicted terrorist could be deprived of their French nationality, potentially creating apatricides. As Patrick Weil pointed out, there were problems with each of these positions: to deprive only bi-nationals of their French nationality was tantamount to discrimination and to creating two classes of citizenship (against the equality inherent in the Declarations of the Rights of Man)[9]. But the proposal to remove French nationality from any convicted terrorist might leave certain citizens without a nationality. If the first proposal clearly went against the canons of French republican equality, the second one was manifestly contrary to international jurisprudence and law. After four months of high drama, the constitutional reform bill eventually fell in March 2016, once the Senate refused to accept the terms of the constitutional reform finally approved

in the National Assembly[10]. The saga further alienated the left (including losing the Justice minister Christian Taubira, the symbol of left-wing authenticity within the Valls government) without rallying the right in support of the constitutional change. Eventually both measures fell victim to the decision to abandon the constitutional reform. The real fault was a political one. This idea of removing nationality from terrorists has long been associated with the UMP (Sarkozy in 2010) and even the National Front (Front national – FN), whose spokesperson declared the FNs agreement with the proposal.   The political damage caused by this saga has been considerable for the lack of any positive outcome. The response was to divide further an already emasculated left, without opening up a viable electoral alternative.

One of the core constituencies supporting Hollande in 2012 was that of the youngest age cohorts (18-24, 25-34). Shortly on the heels of the constitutional saga, the proposed El Khomri law revealed how difficult it can be for any government, including a Socialist-led one, to maintain a constructive relationship with young people on the verge of entering the labour market. The merits of the proposed El Khomri law (which initially set out to reform [modestly] the labour code, to liberalise [somewhat] the conditions under which firms could lay-off workers and to limit job-loss payments) might be debated. The employer’s association, the MEDEF, has long argued that the French labour code is impossibly complex and has posited a clear link between excessive regulation and the stubborn refusal of the unemployment curve to begin its movement downwards. In drafting the initial project, premier Valls listened closely to be MEDEF (and rather less closely to PS deputies or traditional support organisations such as the student union, the UNEF).  In rather typical style, weak consultation produced a social movement which, in turn, led the government to abandon key elements of the proposed legislation. Rather like the Macron Law in 2015, the proposals that eventually emerged fell far short of their initial ambition.  Perhaps the Socialists have nothing to expect from the MEDEF. But the rupture with ‘young people’ was the real downside of this series. The most contentious issues were abandoned before the law had been introduced in the Council of Ministers. And yet this climb-down was not enough to put the genie of France’s youth back into the bottle, as the mobilisation against the Loi el Khomri was transformed into the nuits debout movement, staring in the Place de la République in Paris and extending outwards to the French cities shortly after, the symbol of a divided left and a youth in revolt, renewing with a classic register (social protest) aimed against the incumbent socialist government. The mobilisation of students and school pupils against the proposed El Khomri Law recalled that one decade earlier against the First Employment Contract (Contrat premier emploi – CPE) of de Villepin government. The merits of the case need not be reviewed extensively here. That the dual labour market might be responsible for the high level of youth employment does not figure as part of the mental map of the protesters against labour market insecurity. But the management of the Valls- Hollande tandem was clearly defective. Neither the minister, Myriam El Khomri, nor premier Valls was able to reassure and satisfy a youth fearful of labour flexibility and desirous of the full time permanent contracts that their parents enjoyed.

Faced with these setbacks, the latest batch of opinion surveys provide little solace for Hollande. The third round of the CEVIPOF’s 2017 Barometer casts doubt on Hollande’s personal judgement. Even more recent surveys have suggested that Hollande, as PS candidate, would not reach the second round and, if he did, would be defeated by Marine Le Pen[11]. These findings are incredibly damaging, as they undermine Hollande’s attempt to position himself as Father of the Nation, defending the Republic against its enemies. In this fin de règne there is new evidence of lèse majesté: in the form of the ambitious political positioning of Emmanuel Macron, the new darling of the polls on the left. Though Macron owes his political ascension to President Hollande (Assistant General Secretary of the Elysée, named as Finance minister in April 2014),  in early April 2016 the ambitious énarque announced the creation of a new political movement, En Marche, explicitly aiming to  transcend left and right. Whatever the fortunes of this movement (there have been others), it is difficult to see how it cannot be experienced as a form of treason by Hollande, protector and promotor of the ambitious Macron as a counterweight to premier Valls and a bridge to the business world.  Valls, trapped by solidarity with Hollande and by co-management of the executive for over two years, is no longer the young reformer anxious to sweep aside the existing Socialist order. Macron is much less constrained and more likely to ‘kill the father’.

These events tells us something about Hollande’s presidential style. The official optimism of public speeches throughout the Hollande presidency was in stark contrast with popular perceptions of failure. The 2012-2017 presidential term has been defined in part by a style that posits a preference for formal consultation over open confrontation. There is much to be said for the art of refined compromise, especially after the fractures of the Sarkozy years.  Hollande’s celebrated capacity for synthesis was developed over years as First Secretary of the Socialist Party, and involved an intimate knowledge of PS networks, and of the changing centre of gravity within the party.  If the advantage is flexibility, and the ability to adapt to a changing centre of gravity, the downside is the challenge of consistency, credibility and coherence. Ultimately, Hollande’s reputation has suffered from the ambiguities of the 2012 campaign, from the lasting impression of a lack of coordination within the executive and in relations with the Socialist-led majority and, above all, by perceptions of a poor policy record, marked notably by the failure to control unemployment.

Notes

[1]  ‘François Hollande dans une position toujours plus difficile avant la Présidentielle’   IPSOS- CEVIPOF-Le Monde, 30 March 2016, http://www.ipsos.fr/decrypter-societe/2016-03-30-francois-hollande-dans-position-toujours-plus-difficile-avant-presidentielle. In the third wave of the CEVIPOF’s Barometer, by far the largest rolling survey with over 20,000 respondents, Francois Hollande was in third position whether the Republican candidate was Alain Juppé (14%), or Nicolas Sarkozy (16%). Hence, the incumbent President would be eliminated on the first round.

[2] Jaffré, J. (2012) ‘Ce que signifie le vote du 6 mai’, Le Monde, 5 June.

[3] Op. cit.

[4] Cole, A. (2014) ‘Not Saying, Not Doing:  Convergences, Contingencies and Causal Mechanisms of State Reform and Decentralisation in Hollande’s France’ French Politics 12 (2): 104-135.

[5]  In an IFOP-Fiducial poll for Paris Match and Sud Radio, 27-28 November 2015, Hollande obtained 50% of positive opinions. Cited in Le Monde, 2-4 January 2016.  By 26 April 2016, Hollande was credited with only 17% of favourable opinions (83% unfavourable) in an ODOXA survey for L’Express.

[6] The state of urgency, ruled by a law dating from 1955 at the height of the Algerian crisis, is not to be confused with the state of emergency (Article 16), which allows the President to suspend the normal operation of the Constitution.

[7]  Beaud, O (2016) ‘Ce projet de réforme constitutionnelle est inutile et inepte’, Le Monde, 2 February.

[8] In response to a Question prioritaire de constitutionalité, (QPC) the Constitutional Council demanded a much stricter control of the conditions under which computer hard disks could be copied, which emptied the measure of much of  its operational effectiveness.

[9] Weil, P. (2016) ‘Le principe d’égalité est un pilier de notre identité’, Le Monde, 8 January.

[10] Bekmezian, H. (2016) ‘Le Sénat enterre la décheance de nationalité’, Le Monde 19th March ; Le Monde (2016) ‘les principales réactions à l’abandon de la réforme constitutionnelle’ Available at : http://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2016/03/30/les-principales-reactions-a-l-abandon-de-la-reforme-constitutionnelle_4892495_823448.html#vZUkG8eYkkGyg1mZ.99 (consulted 27 April 2016).

[11] For example, according to the IFOP – Fiducial poll (17/04/2016) for i-tele, Paris-Match and Sud Radio, Le Pen would win a (very hypothetical) Le Pen-Hollande run off in 2017 by 53% to 47% http://www.ifop.com/media/poll/3363-1-study_file.pdf.

Jean-Louis Thiébault – President Hollande’s cabinet reshuffle

This is a guest post by Jean-Louis Thiébault, emeritus professor of political science and former director of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Lille

In France, the government reshuffle is a weapon in the hands of the president. It can have three objectives: a change of personnel, the enlargement of the majority, or a change in policy (Editorial by Alain Duhamel on RTL, February 11, 2016). The formation of Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ third government on 11 February 2016 aims to meet all three goals. However, it fails to bring together all of the left and fails to guarantee that François Hollande will be the sole candidate of the left at the 2017 presidential election.

The change of personnel notably concerned Ministers Laurent Fabius and Sylvia Pinel. The former left the Foreign Affairs ministry to become president of the Constitutional Council with his ministerial portfolio being given to former prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (May 2012-April 2014). The latter left the Ministry of Housing and Sustainable Habitat to becomes executive vice-president of the Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrénées region. Other ministers were also replaced, yet the widely touted departures of Marylise Lebranchu from the Ministry of Decentralization and Public Service and Fleur Pellerin from the Ministry of Culture and Communication did not take place. However, the prior resignation of the Justice Minister, Christiane Taubira, should be noted. She resigned because of her opposition to a plan to strip French-born terrorists of their nationality. The resignation took place on 27 January 2016, with Taubira being immediately replaced by Jean-Jacques Urvoas. The appointments mark the desire to create a strong ministerial group in the fight against terrorism.

The second objective was the expansion of the majority by rebalancing the distribution of men and women in the government, but also by the entry of three representatives from the environmentalists and the centre-left. The new government has 38 members: 18 ministers and 20 state secretaries. There is a strict gender parity with the same number of women and men among both ministers and secretaries of state. The entry of the environmentalists came with the appointment of the national secretary (leader) of Europe-Ecologie-Les-Verts (EELV), Emmanuelle Cosse, as housing minister, and two dissident environmentalists, Vincent Place, a senator, and Barbara Pompili, a deputy and former co-chair of the EELV parliamentary group. The latter two ministers had already broken with EELV for some time. However, the appointment of Emmanuelle Cosse smacks of poaching from EELV. The new government is not the result of a coalition agreement. There is a return of the greens, but there was no substantive discussion on policy, no programmatic agreement, no concessions made, no compromises accepted, apart from a “consultation” on the construction of the proposed airport at Notre Dame des Landes, near Nantes, in Loire-Atlantique. In a statement on 10 February 2016 EELV stated that the conditions were not ready for a return of environmentalists to the government. Entitled “About the reshuffle”, the text stated that “EELV has not been contacted, but that if an offer” were to be made to the whole movement “by the executive, the direction of EELV would study it “with responsibility”. EELV added: “environmentalists note that if the conditions were no longer in place to advance ecology in April 2014 with the departure of Cécile Duflot and Pascal Canfin from the government, the same remains true today “. The statement mentions no names, but everyone understood that it was aimed at Emmanuelle Cosse. She immediately stepped down as national secretary. David Cormand, the party number two, was chosen as her replacement prior to the EELV congress in June 2016. In short, EELV was against the appointment of Emmanuelle Cosse to the government.

The third objective is the desire to find a new balance with a view to the 2017 presidential election. The new government has been appointed with the presidential campaign in mind. The choices made by the president were not targeted at public policy issues, but to rebalance balances an exhausted government majority. President Francois Hollande has named people who can put out potential political fires in the majority (David Revault Allonnes, “Derniers colmatages présidentiels avant 2017”, Le Monde, February 13, 2016). The most important appointment is that of the environmentalists in order to torpedo any attempt an ecologist candidacy in the 2017 presidential election, which would be very detrimental to him. However, EELV is now free to radicalize even more, making life difficult for the government and raising the prospect of an alliance with the left-wing opposition to to the president. The other appointment is that of the president of the left-center Radical Party (PRG), Jean-Michel Baylet. Again, the tactical aspect is not absent. The appointment of the chairman of PRG allies the party securely with the ruling majority, while removinging the spectre of a left-center radical candidate in the 2017 presidential election.

In the final period of his five-year term, Francois Hollande has once again decided to promote the idea of a “responsible left” and to distance himself from the “protest left.” He understands that he cannot expect anything from either the left wing of the Socialist Party (PS) or from the left of the left.  His opponents inside the PS, the “rebels”, aim to weaken him, to build an alternative project, and to hold a primary election that is open to the left as a whole.

Jean-Louis Thiébault, emeritus professor of political science and former director of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Lille, France (1997-2007). He works on comparative political analysis of emerging countries, presidential leadership, and presidential parties.

Alistair Cole – The French President: Changing Times Afoot, Challenging Times Ahead

This is a guest post by Alistair Cole, Sciences Po, Lyon, France (alistair.cole@sciencespo-lyon.fr)

alistaircole

The French presidency is sometimes presented as a timeless institution, a successful office that has restored stability (after the precarious disequilibrium of the Fourth Republic) and provided the model of an original hybrid, the semi-presidential regime, that has been subsequently been imitated in several other countries. Stability has been celebrated by incumbent French Presidents, from de Gaulle (who lauded the presidency as the alternative to a return of chaos) through to Hollande (who evoked the stability of the institutions in his attempt to survive a period of unprecedented unpopularity from 2012 to 2014). President Mitterrand’s injunction to let time do the work (‘donner du temps au temps’) exemplified the timeless quality of the presidency admirably. Beneath this apparent stability, however, the French presidency has evolved considerably over time, to the point that in 2012, at the end of Sarkozy’s (first) presidential term, I asked the question: was the presidency the same institution under Sarkozy as that of his Fifth Republic predecessors (Cole, 2012)?

In one obvious sense, the French presidency has been forced to accompany time. France in the 1960s was not the same as France in the mid-2010s. De Gaulle’s leadership was crafted in the context of regime change, decolonization, social and economic take-off, the formative stages of European integration and the stabilization of the cold war that allowed the General to develop original nuclear and foreign policy doctrines. By the time of Hollande’s arrival in office in 2012, the political institutions, though contested by much of political and public opinion, had proved their flexibility. Decolonisation still provoked occasional controversies but only as part of France’s historical heritage. The European Union had expanded from 6 to 27 members and the cold war was a distant memory. The specific circumstances of the 1960s that encouraged de Gaulle to craft a distinctive leadership role no longer prevailed in the 2010s.

The key paradox to be addressed in this piece is whether the French presidency is still fit for purpose, given that the core institutional traits of the office were shaped in a period far removed from the challenges facing France in 2016. Using various configurations of time, I consider the goodness of fit between the French presidential office and contemporary memorial, institutional and policy timescapes. Evidence is provided from all stages of the Fifth Republic, but special attention is afforded to the last two presidential incumbents, Sarkozy and Hollande.

Time as commemoration

President Hollande has had more than his fair share of commemorations, from the 100 years of the outbreak of World War One in 2014 to the 20th anniversary of Francois Mitterrand’s death, on 11th January 2016 and countless other occasions. Though by definition it commemorates time, in a political sense commemoration is timeless; hence the great attention paid to the formal consecration of events by President Hollande and his predecessors. Commemoration allows French presidents to cloak themselves in the noble aspects of the office.

Commemoration recalls national (or party) unity in times of terrorist attacks or foreign policy interventions and provides set-piece occasions for the French President to address the nation (July 14th, 31st December).  In extremely grave times, such as the response to the terrorist attacks on January and November 2015, commemoration (with a broad definition) assumes the form of a brief spell of national unity against a clearly identified aggressor. Such moments allow the President to embody national unity and, in the case of the current incumbent, provide occasional respite from routine unpopularity. Though presidents attempt to prolong the sentiment of national unity (see Hollande’s attempt to constitutionalise the State of Emergency provisions) such occasions are almost by definition limited in time. Hollande’s opinion poll ratings took a familiar path after the dual terrorist attacks of January and November 2015:  an immediate rallying of support behind the President, followed by a steep decline in the polls two months later, the time it takes to unpick the thin veil of national consensus. Hollande’s steep fall in public confidence in early 2016 recalls that time is contingent and that commemoration is not the basis for long-term survival.

Time and contingent choices

That the Fifth Republic has survived for longer than any other political regime except the Third Republic can produce a false sense of coherence. The power of the present to interpret the past has been recalled during the course of my lectures to the first year students at Sciences Po Lyon. Revisiting the 1958-1962 period via contemporary videos and press reports recalls how much the presidential office has been shaped in terms of contingent choices that might not have occurred (the nature of de Gaulle’s arrival in power in 1958 amid allegations of Putsch-like behaviour; the General’s footloose interpretations of the constitution from 1959 to 1962; the president-centric interpretation of the 31st January 1964 press conference). The uncertainty of the early years of the Fifth Republic recedes from memory and is eclipsed in standard textbook accounts or historical narrations. If the French president appears with the benefit of hindsight as la clé de voûte des institutions, such a construction was vigorously contested by many at the time and only partially legitimised with Mitterrand’s election as first Socialist President in 1981.  The office of the presidency does not exist in a situation of stasis. The ascendancy of the presidency stems in part from the contingent choices made by individuals. Had General de Gaulle decided to invest the office of the Prime Minister, for example, we might conjecture that the development of presidential power would not have occurred in the form it did. We should note that General de Gaulle’s famous 1964 press conference occurred before the first direct election of the President of 1965; it represented a theorisation of presidential power that bore little relationship to the text of the 1958 constitution, but which would also be superseded by the consequences of bipolar competition after 1965. But the powerful institutionalisation around the presidency was a political game changer.

Time and Institutional rhythms

Core changes have occurred in the electoral and the institutional rules since 1958. The most significant change in the electoral rules concerned the direct election of the President in the October 1962 referendum. Direct election has had unintended consequences; rather than the consecration of a transcendental form of leadership, the direct election of the President produced an initially bipolar partisan competition for the conquest of the key institutional office. Changes in the institutional rules have influenced the evolution of the office. Arguably the most significant institutional change of all was that replacing the seven-year term (septennat) with a five-year term (quinquennat) in 2000. By aligning the two electoral cycles and ensuring that the presidential election precedes the parliamentary contest, these constitutional changes have consolidated the institutional ascendancy of the presidency. Because both the presidential and parliamentary elections were held in 2002, the second Chirac presidency had the luxury of enjoying a clear, five-year horizon without having to face national elections. Sarkozy repeated the feat in 2007, as did Hollande in 2012.

But the President’s more affirmed institutional ascendancy is not the most significant observation. After a period marked by stasis during the second Chirac presidency (2002-2007), the first Sarkozy (2007-2012) term bore the mark of the quinquennat, an acceleration of political time that makes cohabitation less likely, but propels the French president into a much more active role from the beginning of the mandate. Under Sarkozy (especially) and Hollande, the French President has appeared more explicitly as de facto head of government than their predecessors, and as such  has been forced to take responsibility for governing. Both Presidents were unable to use the shield of the prime minister to absorb unpopularity. While Sarkozy was less popular than his PM Fillon throughout the 2007-2012 period, Hollande was also eclipsed in terms of popularity by PM Valls from April 2014 onwards.

In 2007-2012, the personal governing style of ‘speedy Sarko’ combined with a changed set of rules of the presidential game (the quickening rhythm of the quinquennat) to create the fast presidency, an evolution of the traditional presidential office. Sarkozy’s presidency was based on a transgression of the key personal and institutional codes, most notably on a deeply political reading of the office, whereby the political leader dispensed with the discourse of national unity, slated opponents and invited unpopularity in response to detailed interventionism in politics and policy-making. Though Hollande’s personal presidential style was light years away from that of Sarkozy – ponderous, hesitant and deliberative – he faced similar constraints (the demand for rapid action to resolve crisis; occupying the frontline in the economic crisis [unemployment, economic growth, competitiveness]). Hollande has been hoist on his own petard because of the imprudent commitment, made barely one year into his quinquennat, to be judged on his capacity to reverse the upward trend in the unemployment figures. In spite of a battery of plans for the social treatment of unemployment, thus far the unemployment rate has edged ever higher (the December 2015 figures reversing an apparent improvement in November).

In both cases, the blame game (Sarkozy’s rupture with the Chirac years, Hollande’s persistent anti-Sarkozy stance) aggravated the situation. In both cases, the suprapartisan image of the French presidency gave way to a more sharply defined partisan appeal. Sarkozy’s claim to embody supra-partisan neutrality during the economic crisis from 2008-2010 was difficult to sustain given the hyper-presidentialist activism of the first three years. Likewise, Hollande failed to rise above the Socialist party politics that had propelled him to office after his success in the 2011 PS primary election.

These changing domestic institutional equilibria have challenged the traditional arbiter role of the French president. The presidential office itself has evolved to such an extent that the public’s perception of presidential action is rarely dissociated from the cleavages of domestic politics. This distance between the President and public opinion has been aggravated by the reality of tripartite party politics (since 2002 and especially since the consolidation of the National Front under Marine Le Pen since 2011), which is squeezed with great difficulty into the rules of bipolar institutional competition.

Changing Times afoot, Challenging Times ahead

The meaning of the presidential office has shifted with the passage of time. The French presidency has been affected by broader shifts in the domestic and external environment: the weakening capacities of French Presidents on the European level; the country’s modest economic performance, falling ever more behind Germany; the changing nature of the security challenges facing France and other European nations. The founding myth of the Fifth Republic, based on the heroic narrative of presidential leadership rescuing France from the abyss of the Third and Fourth Republics and a strong state, has faded with time and appears ever more out of kilter with the contemporary situation of France. French Presidents are no longer heroic figures and the capacities of national public policy action have been reduced as France has become increasingly integrated in the European Union.

The French presidential office was shaped and defined in a context of crisis, and has evolved through the contradictory impulse of contingent forces: of individual incumbents, of changing political circumstances and of evolutions in the external settings. The general quickening of political life has made it far more difficult for incumbents to combine the key roles that are traditionally ascribed to the French President. The fall from grace of individual French presidents has affected the capacity of the presidential office itself to stand above the fray of domestic partisan politics. Is the French presidency still fit for purpose? With changing times afoot, there are challenging times ahead.

Reference

Cole, A. (2012) ‘The Fast Presidency?  Nicolas Sarkozy and the political institutions of the Fifth Republic’ Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, 16:3, 311-321.