In the countdown to the French Presidential elections next month, every day is filled with suspense. The political terrain has changed dramatically over the past couple of months the public are glued to their radios and to the free newspapers that are handed out around the Paris Metro. A new political culture seems to be defining French attitudes.
There are 12 candidates campaigning for a run at President over the next month but the front-runners have already emerged.
In November the Socialist, SÃ©golÃ¨ne Royal, won her primaries with an overwhelming majority. A mass of excitement arose at the idea of reputedly macho France having its first Woman President. The fight for ‘parity’ the aim to have an equal number of female and male parliamentarians seemed to have borne fruit rapidly, and the cool Royal looked set to be the new ‘face of France.’
In a country where the personal lives of politicians don’t generally figure in the media, suddenly personality, gender and spin were in vogue, and newspapers deplored the ‘pipolisation’ a new French word derived from the glossy celebrity-focussed ‘people’ magazines of French politics.
The French approach is slightly different from the US, Australia or the UK. The photos last summer of Madame Royal on the beach in her bikini caused a storm mainly because this kind of thing has never been in the media before. Yet the fact that Royal has four children without being married to her partner which would be scandalous elsewhere isn’t even on the radar in France.
SÃ©golÃ¨ne has proven to be more than just a celeb. She has a socialist platform with an emphasis on equality of opportunity, education and employment. She is also partial to a citizen-based politics with citizens’ juries such as in other countries in Europe and Latin America.
However, recently she has refused to take positions on many issues, saying that she wishes to listen to what the French people have to say. Hence her detractors have accused her of relying too much on brand and image, and lacking in policy.
After cutting through all the dissent on the Right, and gaining the support of his Party, Sarkozy flooded TV channels with news of his candidacy in January this year. The ambitious free marketeer has called for ‘a rupture with a certain style of politics.’
A self-labelled ‘Atlanticist,‘ Sarkozy reveres the American model of Free Trade, Rudy Giuliani-type police tactics, and a more ‘communitarian’ approach to multiculturalism. He is apparently in favour of affirmative action as a way of resolving the huge unemployment problems of the so-called banlieue the ghetto neighbourhoods of outer Paris which are dominated by migrants and second-generation immigrant families.
In January Sarkozy and Royal were neck and neck. The scales soon started to tip in Sarkozy’s favour when he gained the support of extreme-Right voters who were seduced by his hardline policies on immigration and law and order. (Although extreme-Right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen may pose a challenge to this support base.)
Then, somehow, there was panic in the polls. SÃ©golÃ¨ne took a whole month to launch her platform claiming she had been ‘listening to the French people’ and the reality of ‘Sarko’ started to kick in. The man who promised to ‘clean up the suburban hoods with a high pressure hose’ was looking more and more like a megalomaniac. His rhetoric of ‘cleaning’ ‘eliminating’ and expelling ‘illegals’ was becoming obsessive and nasty not to mention slightly Nazi-esque.
Sarkozy’s platform is perceived as contradictory and observed with suspicion by the Muslim communities he claims to want to help. It was his statements that triggered the suburban riots of last October. Many on the Left see him as a very dangerous candidate with tendencies to support US foreign policy and introduce an American style economic system flavoured with a hint of local racism.
The SÃ©go/Sarko factor was losing its gloss.
Enter FranÃ§ois Bayrou.
French politics has been turned upside down by the emergence of Bayrou. He is from the rump of a Christian Democrat Party, which is a small part of a Centrist coalition of Parties, called the Union for French Democracy (UDF).
Bayrou’s upbringing is similar to Kevin Rudd’s he grew up on a farm and his father died when he was young. He is a professor of Greek and Latin and has six children. He ran for President in 2002 and got 6 per cent of the votes. With French voters disappointed with the Royal and Sarkozy brands, he has been rising rapidly in the polls. Some of his support comes from those on the Left who think he stands a better chance of defeating Sarkozy in the second round of the election, and that Sarkozy must be stopped at all costs. Others on the Right are disaffected with Sarkozy’s pro-Americanism.
At somewhere between 21 and 23 per cent of the vote, Bayrou’s rating is close to that of Royal and, if he can reach a higher score than her, the polls give him every chance of winning the race. If the second round is Royal versus Sarkozy then the polls have Sarkozy winning, but if it’s between Bayrou and Sarkozy then Bayrou is set to win by 54 to 46.
The whole of the political class and most of the Cabinet supports Sarkozy, so it is hard to see where Bayrou is going to get support and indeed how he would form a government. But it now looks as though he could be the next President of France. It would be the first time someone who did not go to the prestigious political schools of France Sciences Po and the Ecole Nationale d’Administration became President, and it would indeed be a shock to all.
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