Tuesday, 7 February 2012

From four-horse race back to two-horse?

In January, four candidates were serious contenders in the first round of the French presidential election.  The long-term front-runner, François Hollande (PS – Socialist party), looked sure to qualify to the second round.  His likely opponent was Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP – centre-right party), the incumbent president.  Chasing at Sarkozy’s heels for second-round qualification were Marine le Pen (FN, far-right National Front party) and François Bayrou (MoDem, the centrist Democratic Movement party).  How did these extra candidates rise so far in the polls, and do they remain a credible threat to Sarkozy?

The second round of the French presidential election is traditionally a stand-off between the main candidate of the right and of the left.  However, there have been numerous exceptions to this rule.  On occasion there has been more than one serious candidate on the right – for example, Jacques Chirac was challenged by Edouard Balladur, then prime minister, in 1995.  In addition, the 2002 election provided a political “earthquake” after the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, fell victim to a divided left-wing vote and got knocked out in the first round, with the FN candidate Jean-Marie le Pen qualifying to the second round (where he was beaten most decisively by Jacques Chirac).  In 2007, Le Pen’s vote diminished as voters learned the lessons of 2002, while François Bayrou put in a strong showing and obtained a respectable 18% of the vote, placing him third.  Hypothetical second-round polls, conducted prior to the first round, indicated that Bayrou had a better chance of beating Sarkozy than the Socialist candidate (Ségolène Royal), causing some voters to shift towards Bayrou in an attempt to block Sarkozy.  Nonetheless, Royal qualified comfortably to the second round, and Bayrou soon disappeared into semi-obscurity, only re-emerging as the 2012 election drew close.
In 2012, Jean-Marie le Pen has been succeeded by his daughter, Marine.  More than forty years younger than her father, she offers a rejuvenated and feminised image to a party whose electorate traditionally comprises twice as many male as female voters.  Women are stereotypically viewed as being less right-wing and more moderate than men, and the far-right is particularly male-dominated.  Le Pen has profited from her more moderate image and her considerable political skills to breathe new life into the FN.  However, these efforts have been tarnished in the past month by damaging stories of her association with Austrian neo-nazis.  Doubts are now being raised over whether she will succeed in obtaining the 500 signatures of locally elected officials that are required for her to be an official candidate.  Speculative polls that omit her from the ballot indicate that her absence would benefit Sarkozy, which might further persuade UMP officials to refuse to offer their signature to her campaign.  Although it would be surprising if she did not ultimately succeed in getting onto the ballot, she does not appear to pose an imminent threat to Sarkozy’s prospects of qualifying to the second round.
Indeed, Sarkozy has enjoyed a slight resurgence as his campaign steps up a few gears.  He has staked his credibility on his role as a big player on the international scene, especially in partnership with Germany.  The humiliation of France’s downgrading from AAA to AA+ has certainly hurt Sarkozy, but he is not defeated yet.  He is currently basking in an endorsement from Angela Merkel, and from a campaign blitz where he managed to broadcast on nine television channels simultaneously.  A recent rise in VAT might be considered an audacious move – who would dare raise a tax three months before an election? – but the rise was lower than originally forecast, and is consistent with Sarkozy’s efforts to be seen as someone who will take tough decisions in order to protect the economy.  Floating voters are becoming more settled in their vote choice, and the threat of a humiliating exit after the first round now looks increasingly remote.  At the same time, while Sarkozy may be pulling ahead of Le Pen and Bayrou, he has done little to close the large gap that remains between him and Hollande.  The Socialist candidate continues to enjoy a substantial lead in the polls for both the first and second rounds.  If a week is a long time in politics, the three months that remain before the final ballot are an eternity.  The race is not won yet.  But Hollande’s lead, which stretches to nearly twenty points in the second round, is so great that Sarkozy will need a small miracle to turn this election around.  The growing strength of his campaign has improved his position in the first round against Bayrou and le Pen.  But success in the second round will depend either on a swift and spectacular improvement in the economy – which would defy all current forecasts – or another scandal on a scale similar to the one which eliminated the original front-runner, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, last May.
France has a respectable history of electing the underdog rather than the front-runner, and I have previously voiced the opinion that Sarkozy will use his international profile (and Hollande’s woeful lack thereof) to turn the election around.  I am now doubting this assessment.  Traditional electoral forecasting models, based on economic voting, are less reliable in France than elsewhere, but on this occasion it appears that it may well be the economy, stupid.  Short of an economic miracle, it now looks increasingly likely that Hollande and Sarkozy will qualify to the second round, with the former emerging victorious.  That said, I have faith in the notoriously fickle French electorate to keep this election interesting.  If the history of French politics has taught us anything, it is that there is no such thing as a foregone conclusion.

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