The French Presidential Elections: ‘Change Now’?

Yesterday, after five years under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy of the conservative UMP, France elected its first socialist president for over 15 years. The new president, François Hollande, will be the first left-wing politician to take on this role since François Mitterande lost his presidency to Jacques Chirac in 1995.

The results of the 2012 election were relatively close in the both rounds, with the left-wing candidate taking 51.7% of the vote to incumbent Sarkozy’s 48.3% in the final round. However, in a double blow to Sarkozy between the two rounds, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and centrist François Bayrou, who gathered around 18% and 9% respectively in the first round, both denied the incumbent an endorsement. Bayrou told supporters his personal vote would go to Hollande, while Le Pen said she would cast a blank vote.

Nicolas Sarkozy: le président bling-bling?

After having been voted in in 2007 with a comfortable majority, Sarkozy is now the first incumbent president in 30 years not to win a re-election (since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing lost in 1981).

Sarkozy was an unusual president in the sense that he was fundamentally different to the traditional French presidents to rise up from France’s highly elitist grandes écoles. Despite being born to a very wealthy family, and having grown up in one of the richest suburbs of Paris, Sarkozy’s background as a lawyer of Hungarian descent, educated at Paris X Nanterre university made him popular candidate to a French population tired of being represented by politicians whose lives were so distant from their own. There were no political rural roots and no bourgeois family for Sarkozy.

But in a sense, Sarkozy has undone this image somewhat during his presidency. His ostentation has led to a nickname of “le président bling-bling”. His relations with the general public have, at times, been somewhat lacking in the common touch. On one occasion, he told an agricultural worker who refused to shake his hand to “clear off, loser!” (Casse-toi pauvre con!). These comments, among others, have led to accusations of  his being out of touch with the French people.

François Hollande: Monsieur Normal?

In the face of the charges levelled at Sarkozy, Hollande has arrived on the scene as a self-declared “Monsieur Normal”. Despite his privileged background, having been educated first at a private boarding school and then at one of France’s most prestigious graduate schools, the National School of Administration in Strasbourg, Hollande seems to be presenting an image of himself as much more in touch with the common man.

He has proposed a number of policies in his electoral campaign in favour of teachers, pensioners and those on low incomes. These include:

–          Vows to balance budget through higher taxes on rich and big firms, rather than spending cuts

–          A raise in the national minimum wage

–          The hiring of 60,000 more teachers to improve education

–          A lowering of the retirement age from 62 to 60 for workers who have completed a minimum of 41 years of work.

During his victory speech he said, ” Europe is watching us, austerity can no longer be the only option” (L’Europe nous regarde, l’austerité ne pouvait plus être une fatalité).

‘Change Now’?

But Hollande is certainly going to have to hit the ground running and will have no state of grace, leading a country crippled by public debt and in economic crisis, with unemployment nudging a record 10%, a gaping trade-deficit, stuttering growth and declining industry.

Will he really manage to keep his promises, or will Hollande be forced to ‘do a Nick Clegg’? His victory promises a shift in emphasis away from austerity and deregulation, but with the macroeconomic picture still grim, many are warning he faces an uphill struggle.

Despite emerging from a campaign where the main plank of his platform seemed to be ‘I am not Nicolas Sarkozy’, there is a certain vagueness about what this negative definition might really mean. Many are speculating as to the real meaning of his slogan “Change – Now!” (Le changement, c’est maintenant!)

Indeed, there are even questions about how different Hollande might really turn out to be from Sarkozy. During the post-election coverage of the first round results, a well-known television talking head, Ariane Massenet, referred to a candidate named “François Sarkozy,” mixing the names of the two leading candidates.

How much political change will France see under Hollande? Only time will tell…

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