Election Preview: France 2012 Q&A

Presidential elections will be held in France on April 22 and May 6, 2012. The President of France, who holds significant powers granted that he controls a parliamentary majority, is elected for a five-year term, renewable once. France uses a traditional runoff system, where a candidate must win 50%+1 of the votes in the first round to be elected outright, or else the top two candidates in the first round proceed to a runoff held two weeks later. France has held eight direct presidential elections since 1965, and in none of these eight contests has a candidate ever won an absolute majority of the votes cast in the first round.

Thanks to all readers for their interesting questions concerning the 2012 presidential election or the world of French politics in general. Without further a due, here come to answers to the questions which have been asked thus far. I’ll answer questions from readers until, well, the runoff or even further.

What explains Melenchon’s rather sudden surge in support?

This has been an issue which even French political scientists have struggled to answer. His surge was rather sudden, and took pollsters, observers and foreigners by surprise. His surge in support, alongside Nicolas Sarkozy’s gains since he announced his candidacy, are really the two main significant trends of this rather stale campaign.

I tried to answer, in detail, a similar question in this post on my blog dedicated to French elections. To summarize what I said in that post, I attribute the surge to these three factors: his personality, his rhetoric and outside factors.

Firstly, Mélenchon fits the qualities which all successful candidates usually tend to have: charisma, a talent for the oratory arts, dynamism and an ability to convey his message clearly and forcefully. In the French media, for example, Mélenchon is commonly referred to as a tribun de la gauche, tribun being a very good word to describe a charismatic political speaker like Mélenchon. In contrast, the Socialist candidate – François Hollande – has not really been able to shake off an image of him as “soft” or boring in a traditional, moderate style. A lot of left-wing voters may have shifted more to the left as a result of their hatred for Sarkozy, and they may tend to find Hollande’s moderate pragmatism a bit off-putting or ‘soft’ in a time of economic crisis which they believe warrants radical solutions comparable to the economic and fiscal measures proposed by Mélenchon.

Secondly, as touched upon above, Mélenchon’s rhetoric is appealing to anti-system/anti-establishment voters. Political scientists in France since the 2005 referendum on the European constitution have taken to speaking about a fundamental divide between the “elites” – urban, young and educated, socially liberal, tolerant, pro-European and the “people” – suburban-exurban or rural, older, less educated, poorer, more working-class and conservative on issues such as immigration and skeptical of European construction. Unsurprisingly, the FN has been the party of choice for most of the “people”, but in 2007 Nicolas Sarkozy had skillfully scripted a similar appeal to the “people” – or what a recent Ipsos study called “the weakened peripheral France”. Mélenchon’s “new” supporters – those who came around to him during the surge – are rather likely to fall in the latter category.

With the economic crisis, there is a certain demand in France – especially on the left – for a candidate who speaks in tough terms about the banks (or the ‘banksters’ as the Greek have taken to saying), high earners (perceived as not paying their fair share), tax evaders (a lot of wealthy French artists or singers tend to take their money abroad, as do a few high earners), austerity measures (unpopular because of their impact on wages or welfare) and defense of social policies or the welfare state. Mélenchon’s tough rhetoric – which includes concrete proposals including a 20% hike in the minimum wage, a ‘100%’ tax bracket on revenues above €360,000 and a cap on maximum corporate earnings – tend to speak well to “the people”. It is fairly symbolic that Nicolas Sarkozy has felt the need to advocate a tax on ‘fiscal exiles’ or tax evaders, an idea originally proposed by  Mélenchon.

As I noted in the aforementioned post, an Ipsos poll showed that 31% of Mélenchon’s voters cited “a desire to reflect my discontent” as one of their three reasons for voting for him – which is quite a bit higher than all voters combined (23%) but still way below the same number (46%) for Marine Le Pen’s voters. On top of that, Mélenchon’s voters rarely cited a rejection of other candidates as a motivator but were very likely to cite agreement with his ideas or proposals as a reason for leaning towards him. On a final note on this topic, Marine Le Pen remains the top candidate for those who fall in this “people” category popularized by researchers. The composition of Mélenchon’s base is far less proletarian than her base (it is also far less proletarian than the PCF’s electorate in, say, 1981, when the PCF polled 15%). In fact, Mélenchon’s core base has been with a type of fairly “well integrated” petite bourgeoisie made up of public servants and government/public employees (teachers, social workers etc). He has performed well both with ouvriers (manual workers), intermediate-grade folks and managerial-higher professional categories (granted that they are in the public sector).

Finally, in terms of “other factors”, we can cite the media narrative about this election (and its impact on voters) and an ability to unite the “left of the left”. The media narrative about this election is about how Hollande is the big favourite, not a sure winner but a likely winner at least, who will certainly place first or second in the first round and enter the runoff as the favourite given his sizable poll lead (if you believe polls, he could surpass Mitterrand’s 1988 margin against Jacques Chirac). I won’t touch on Hollande’s strong demographics, but rather his (few) weaknesses: on his left. He was not the “left-wing candidate” in the open primary, and there used to be some worries on the left of the PS about his commitment to “left-wing values” or something along those lines. Following the primary, some of the left-wingers lukewarm about Hollande may have come around to supporting him (party unity, ability to win). However, they may have been flirting with Mélenchon following Hollande’s fairly low-key and inaudible campaign as of late. The narrative and appearance of Hollande’s inevitability makes it “safe” for these voters to vote their heart (Mélenchon?) in the first round but back Hollande without too much reluctance in the runoff. Polls shows that about 85% of Mélenchon’s voters will vote for Hollande over Sarkozy in the runoff.

The other “other factor” is the new-found unity of the ‘left of the left’ behind Mélenchon. For sure, a few hardcore left-wing partisans dislike Mélenchon who they still see as a Jospin cabinet minister and a Socialist masquerading as a leftie. But he has managed to appeal to a majority of those who voted for Olivier Besancenot and perhaps even José Bové and Arlette Laguiller in 2007. As we will find out on April 22, a lot of the votes cast for Besancenot (like Arlette in the past) were not cast by hardcore partisan Trots but rather by left-wing and/or protest voters who voted for them based in good part on his personality. The ‘left of the left’ in France, since 2002 if not earlier, has been a chaotic mess. A mish-mash of obscure ideological battles, disagreements over the best direction for the movement and above all personality and ego clashes have made it divided, almost impossible to unite. The PCF-driven attempt to nominate a common “anti-liberal left” candidate in 2007 amounted to naught, as the far-left (old LCR and LO) felt that it was a PCF shenanigan and everybody else didn’t like the idea of losing a primary. The ‘left of the left’ had five candidates in 2007: Besancenot, Arlette, an obscure far-leftist from the PT (Schivardi), the PCF’s disastrous boss Buffet and Bové. This year, with the strong personalities of Besancenot and Arlette gone, it appears as if Mélenchon has achieved the impossible unity of the ‘left of the left’.

Mélenchon has also taken support which once flirted with Marine Le Pen, François Bayrou and probably Eva Joly. The aforementioned post explores all these issues in more detail, alongside the inter-connected old myth of PCF voters flowing to the FN.

According to the Guardian Le Pen’s FN is leading among young voters, but considering that most French Muslims would not be voting for her and among youths Muslims and other minorities is higher in proportion than among the population generally, how many “native” French youths are supporting Le Pen?

A poll by CSA showed Marine Le Pen leading the pack among voters aged 18 to 24 with 26% against 25% for Hollande, 17% for Sarkozy, 16% for Mélenchon and 11% for Bayrou. Compared to a previous poll they had done with the same voters back in late 2011, Marine gained 13 points while Hollande lost 14. Mélenchon gained 11. I will believe this poll when I see its finding corroborated by other polls and by the serious exit polls on April 22. CSA is not one of the best pollsters out there, and has a knack to come out with ‘shock’ polls or outlier numbers. Ifop’s rolling polls have not shown Marine particularly overperforming her national numbers (15-16%) with young voters. Exit polls in past elections have not shown that the FN does particularly strongly with young voters. Her father won 16% with them in 2002, against 14% apiece for Chirac and Jospin. In 2007, he took 7% and in 1995 he had won 17% with them. OpinionWay’s exit poll for the 2010 regional elections showed the FN getting 12% with them, only one point above its national average. Turnout is a big variable with young voters, who are some of the least prone to turn out. In the regional elections, only 33% of them voted. In 2002 – whose record low turnout overall (73%) might be where turnout will be this year (if not lower) – 37% of young voters (18-24) did not vote.

It is not totally unfathomable that Marine Le Pen could perform well with a certain category of young voters – those who are not university students or grads, but rather those who are unemployed youths living in low-income areas. If this category bothers voting at all, Marine Le Pen might carry a special appeal to them in a way which neither Hollande and Sarkozy can match (but which Mélenchon could). She is probably a more ‘appealing’ candidate to these voters because she is much younger and has a slightly less ‘harsh’ image than her father whose appeal to young voters might have been stymied by his age and ‘old ways’ of doing campaigns and politics. Yet, I still have a very hard time seeing her overperform her national average by 10 points or more with voters aged 18-24, when there is no indication that her support has collapsed with the FN’s traditionally strongest age groups: middle-aged voters.

It is true that French Muslims are overwhelmingly young and, in the general young population, do make up a larger percentage than they do in the wider total population. Yet, French Muslims are a smaller share of the total electorate and an even smaller part of the ‘regular’ electorate. A lot of them are not registered voters, either because they are not French nationals or because they have not signed up to vote. Voter turnout, furthermore, is often low – in some cases very low – within the French Muslim population. Those who do vote are overwhelmingly left-wing.

How are French Protestants voting in this election?

Protestants make up about 2.5% of the total French population and a similar share of the electorate. There are, basically, two significant geographical concentrations of Protestants in France: in Alsace (Bas-Rhin especially) where most are Lutherans and in the southwest (Lozère, Gard, Haute-Loire, Aveyron, Ardèche), where most are Calvinists. Despite their small size in the overall population, their voting patterns are far from homogeneous over the territory.

The differences between Protestant and Catholic voters are fairly easily perceptible in both of these regions, but in different ways. In Alsace, the denominational cleavage has become significantly weaker than it was in the 1950s (when it was very stark). However, it has been shown that Alsatian Protestants are more likely to vote for the FN and, in the past, for Gaullists than their Alsatian Catholic counterparts who were far more likely to vote for Christian democratic candidates (MRP, UDF) than Protestants were. This was particularly true in the 1950s up until the 1980s, but the cleavage is far less tenuous nowadays. Yet, Protestant areas in Alsace still tend to be marked by stronger results for the FN than demographically similar Catholic municipalities. In some cases, Protestants vote in slightly larger numbers for the left in Alsace than Catholics do, but they remain largely right-wing in their overall political orientation. Religion likely plays a role in explaining why Protestants are more inclined to vote for the far-right, but their demographic nature in rural areas obviously plays a major role in their voting behaviour: most tend to be working-class.

In sharp contrast, the Protestant regions of the Cévennes mountains in southwestern France are very solidly left-wing. Calvinists in these areas, historically a persecuted minority (revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the terreur blanche) sided very quickly with the Revolution and the creed of religious freedom and tolerance. They have remained, since then, very loyal to the left – the PS in particular, in rarer cases the Communists. The Protestant-Catholic divide remains very perceptible in departments such as Lozère.

An Ifop poll (though on a small sample of 410 Protestants) recently showed that Protestant voters would vote in larger numbers for Sarkozy than the overall population. With Protestants, Sarkozy scored 33.5% (+5 on the overall population) against 22.5% for Hollande, 16.5% for Bayrou (+4.5 on the total population) and 14% for Marine Le Pen. In the ‘east’, Protestants placed Sarkozy in first with 35% to Marine Le Pen’s 28%, with Bayrou in third at 19% and Hollande pulling only 13%. Yet with Protestants in the ‘south’, Hollande won 37% to Sarkozy’s 31% and Bayrou’s 13%. This poll seems a bit too slanted towards the right, especially in the case of the ‘southern’ subsample.

How are Harkis (Algerian native loyalists) voting?

The political preferences of Harkis tend to be lumped in with those of pieds-noirs, the European settlers in Algeria who were resettled in France fifty years ago. I wrote a piece on my other blog which included some reflections on the voting preferences of pieds-noirs 50 years later. A poll by Ifop for the Cevipof in January showed that Marine Le Pen narrowly led the field among those voters with 28% against 26% apiece for Hollande and Sarkozy. In 2007, the study found that 31% had voted for Sarkozy against 20.5% for Royal and 18% for Le Pen. The political preferences of pieds-noirs have often been stereotyped as being overwhelmingly lepeniste. From this stereotype, people also like to explain away the FN’s strength in PACA and the rest of the riviera by laying it all on the voting preferences of the pieds-noirs. This is not quite the case: pieds-noirs are not homogeneous in their voting preferences nor are they a significant enough share of the population in the lepeniste regions of the southeast to shape their political profiles single-handedly.

There have been no specific studies on the harkis, but it seems to be assumed that they vote similarly to the European pieds-noirs, which could make them the only significant French Arab group which votes in significant numbers for the far-right. For harki voters, the issue of ‘recognition’ (recognition by the state that France abandoned them in 1962) is a touchy but important political issue in every election. In 2007, Sarkozy had talked about compensation and a memorial law recognizing the state’s role in the ‘betrayal’ of the pieds-noirs and harkis. More recently, he once again mentioned similar issues.

In the political geography of France, we see that unlike in most English-speaking countries, you don’t have much of an urban-rural divide, rather both left and right have strongholds in both the city and the country. It is also my impression (unverified) that politics are a lot less regional than in other countries. Is this true, and if so why?

It is true that the urban-rural divide is not as important in France as it is in the United States, the United Kingdom or Canada. There has been an increasing divide between urban and rural areas in recent years, as urban areas tend to shift to the left (Paris is a great example) while a lot of rural areas (especially in eastern or northern France) shift to the right. However, some of the left’s strongholds are rural areas (the Limousin, Midi, parts of Aquitaine) while the right can still perform very well in core urban areas unlike the Republicans in the United States or even the Conservatives in other Anglophone countries.

The urban-rural cleavage has been a determinant of voter behaviour, but the fact is that it has never really been the key factor in shaping voter behaviour. Religion, land ownership, class and political traditions have traditionally been the top determinants of voter behaviour in (rural) France.

Religion – specifically the divide between clerical devout Catholics and secular voters – has played a major role in shaping some of the main trends in French electoral geography which persist to this day. ‘Clerical’ voters, be they rural or urban (most were rural), voted heavily for the right. ‘Anti-clerical’ voters formed the backbone of the republican parties and later the Radicals and subsequent left-wing parties. Voters with no religion are overwhelmingly left-wing to this day, church-going Catholics are still heavily slanted in favour of the right. The role of religion as a determinant of the vote has weakened in recent years with secularization since the 1970s, as the inner west and especially Brittany so eloquently shows. But a lot of the political traditions in rural regions remain shaped by religious traditions. The old Southwest has long been the hotbed of anti-clerical and Masonic political sentiments in France (alongside other political sentiments, including anti-establishment and anti-authoritarian streaks), and remains one of the most solidly left-wing regions in France. On the other hand, in the same region, the very religiously inclined herding plateaus of the Aveyron, Cantal or Lozère remain very conservative.

Land ownership has often gone hand-in-hand with class and religion, but has been the other main factor in shaping the political profiles of rural France. Smallholders – farmers who owned their land – were in general the biggest supporters of the republican cause, out of opposition to the aristocratic and authoritarian leanings of the old right. When they were outside clerical regions, sharecroppers or tenant farmers in large properties could be counted upon to harbour some socialist or communist tendencies. When they were in clerical regions, large property often went hand-in-hand with monarchist or conservative traditions. My political profile of the Vendée explores these issues in more details.

Class is not as important in France as it is in the UK or Scandinavian countries, but poverty and social standings has shaped and still shapes political cultures and opinions in France. Religion still trumped class – as Brittany or the inner west showed until recently – but when poverty was found in anti-clerical regions, socialism and later communism could be promised a fertile ground. Class became more important in the post-war era, as the political battle clearly became a fight between “Marxism” (PCF, Socialists) and non-Marxism (right, Radicals, centre). The first constitutional referendum in 1946 is often thought to be a major realigning vote. In this referendum, anti-clerical but fairly well-off rural and urban areas (Champagne or the Beauce) realigned with the right. Anti-clerical but poorer or more anti-system regions (the Southwest, Limousin, Berry, Bourbonnais, parts of Aquitaine) remained aligned with the left, the Socialists being the natural heirs of a left-wing Radical party.

Settlement patterns have also played their role in forging voting patterns. Areas of nucleated rural settlements were more favourable to the left, perhaps because the concentration of voters in a nucleated setting made the exchange of ideas easier. On the other hand, areas of dispersed settlement were more likely to favour the right, as voters remained geographically separated, making the exchange of ideas and views harder.

In the 1960s, the political leanings of urban areas could generally be summarized fairly easily: a bourgeois and right-leaning urban core surrounded by a proletarian hinterland, with solid Communist or left-wing leanings. The image is not so simple anymore. The inner suburbs of most large cities are no longer proletarian in the old sense, but either gentrifying or working poor (employees, low-paying jobs, public servant). Inner cities have shifted to the left as part of a mixed phenomenon of gentrification (eastern Paris or inner suburbs such as Montreuil are great examples) and boboïsation – young professionals who are not too badly off but hold left-libertarian political opinions. Even affluent inner suburbs have begun voting consistently for the left, while the right has made some inroads in some more working-class left-leaning suburban areas.

The divide between ‘rural’ and ‘urban’, furthermore, is no longer clear-cut. With exurban growth and rural decline, some rural-looking areas are actually suburban or exurban communities with residents fleeing high inner-city property prices and forced to drive long commutes to large urban areas for work. Agriculteurs – the socioprofessional category made up of farmers who work their own land – barely account for 1% of the French population. A lot of distant rural communities have a population made up of semi-rural low-income working-class employees or manual workers who work in small firms or companies in neighboring towns.

In the 2007 election, there was an unusually strong urban-rural divide. Ségolène Royal outperformed the traditional left in urban areas  – notably Paris – while Nicolas Sarkozy outran the traditional right in a lot of rural areas in eastern France (taking a lot of FN votes). The 2007 election also showed a strengthening of the left in regions such as Brittany with a declining Catholic tradition.

Politics are indeed less regional in France than in other countries. Obviously, each regions have their own political history and traditions but France does not really have well-defined political cultures like that of the South in the United States, Bavaria in Germany or Alberta in Canada. France being the dictionary definition of a centralized nation-state likely plays a major role. ‘Peripheral’ ethnic groups (Alsatian, Breton, Occitan, Basque, Savoyard, Catalan) have been, through government policies since the 1870s, reduced to sad shadows of their former selves or totally eliminated beyond recognition. The lack of any major regional languages besides French (though Alsatian, Breton, Basque and Corsican retain a not-insignificant proportion of speakers) have stymied the growth of ‘regional identities’ comparable to those found in Spain, for example. In the media narrative, furthermore, all talk about elections – even regional elections – are run through ‘national’ lenses – which is not the case in the US, Canada or Spain.

Only Corsica and some overseas territories can be said to form fairly cohesive ‘regional identities’ with political traditions clearly separate from those of metropolitan France. But even in those cases, their regionalism does not measure up to the regionalism found in other countries. The closest we can find to regionalism might be the FN’s strong implantation east of the oft-discussed Le Havre-Valence-Perpignan.

If (and i realize it’s a HUGE if) Mélenchon manages to go to the runoff on April 22nd:
1. Can he win whether it’s against Sarkozy or Hollande?
2. What does that mean in connection to the Greek elections that are being held on May 6th (same day as French runoff)?
3. Is it possible to see a MLP vs. JLM on May 6th?

It is indeed a ‘huge if’ and it would prove an upset equal to or even bigger than Le Pen’s 2002 upset. It would require a lot of things to align for him in the next week, which is of course nearly impossible. Assuming, for a second now, that he does indeed make it as your question asks. I threw together a few simulations based on your questions, which you can see here (vs. Hollande), here (vs. Sarkozy)

If it is against Hollande, he would at best win something like 35% of the vote. Though a lot of right-wingers would not vote, Hollande would receive the bulk of Sarkozy, Bayrou and Marine voters who choose to vote in the runoff. Mélenchon would only win support from the far-left’s two candidates and a bit from Joly.

Against Sarkozy, Mélenchon would probably still lose but would easily clear 40% and win something similar to 44-46% of the vote against Sarkozy. Sarkozy is unpopular, and many Hollande voters would vote for Mélenchon over Sarkozy (as would Joly’s voters). However, it is unlikely that Bayrou’s voters would prove as ready to vote for Mélenchon then they are for Hollande. My scenario is fairly generous in assuming that 20% of Bayrou’s voters could vote for Mélenchon over Sarkozy. There is more uncertainty here, as Mélenchon’s surge has significantly improved his image in the wider realm of public opinion and might – I haven’t checked the numbers – be more popular than Sarkozy currently is. But could Mélenchon hold up his positive image in what would certainly be a very bloody runoff?

A runoff between Mélenchon and Marine is even harder to envision, as it would require both to surge further while Hollande and Sarkozy collapse, benefiting small candidates and Bayrou (but also Marine and Mélenchon). I ran a little scenario here which gives my opinion about how such a runoff would shape up to be. It would probably not result in excessively high turnout, as the far-right being qualified would boost centrist and left-wing turnout while Marine Le Pen’s voters would of course turn out in their quasi-entirety (unlike in a normal runoff where a third will likely not vote). The main uncertainty concerns the behaviour of Sarkozy’s voters. With him winning only 21% of the vote, he would be done to a core right-wing rump but would also have shed almost all FN-UMP swing voters and Le Pen 2002 voters which he had won in 2007. I believe about 55-60% of his voters in such a scenario would vote for Marine Le Pen, though Sarkozy himself would not give any endorsement. Marine Le Pen, however, cannot win a runoff election. She is too polarizing and her image is still too negative. However, a runoff against Mélenchon could be her best chance out of any runoff scenario. She could win anywhere between 40 and 45% of the vote in such a runoff against Mélenchon.

It is hard to see the elections in France having a major impact on the elections being held in Greece on the day of the runoff election. Could the sensation of a Mélenchon-x runoff on May 6 have a non-negligible impact on the Greek elections? It could minimally boost the chances of the anti-austerity left-wing parties there, but the Greek elections will first and foremost be fought around and decided by issues which are much closer to home. That being said, if Mélenchon does indeed qualify for the runoff, it could send shockwaves around Europe and indirectly impact the popular support of similar parties and candidates in other European countries, including Spain or Italy.

 Translated from French: Can the FN place first in certain communes because of Marine Le Pen’s new base?)

There are 36,000 communes (municipalities) in France, and Marine Le Pen will win a lot of those – a lot of which tend to be very small villages with less than 1,000 voters. Her father had won communes – most of them tiny places – in 2007 despite his poor showing that year. He even won two cantons that year. The better question is whether or not she can win a legislative constituency and even a department. Her winning a department depends a lot on the gap which separates her from the first-placed candidate nationally, be it Hollande or Sarkozy. If she does well, with something over 16%, but the gap which separates her from a Sarkozy or Hollande is over 10 percentage points, then she could still not win a single department. If, on the other hand, she does well and the gap between her and first place is fairly small, then she could stand a chance in departments such as the Aisne or Haute-Marne. She will probably place first in her political home base, Hénin-Beaumont, and record a swing above the national average in the Pas-de-Calais and its general region.

Translated from French: In the next legislative elections, could there be surprises? Is a cohabitation possible?

Since the Jospin-Chirac tandem agreed to ‘realign’ the electoral calendar in 2000, legislative elections have become of much less importance and usually confirmations of the result of the presidential election held a month beforehand. The new electoral cycle, with a synchronized presidential and legislative term, has worked to reassert the predominance of the presidential election as the ‘top’ election in France. In this perspective, the next legislative elections should not see any surprises.

In the scenario that Hollande is elected, the PS allied with the left will not struggle too much to win an absolute majority. In the past, the only election held immediately after a presidential election in which the president’s party failed to win an absolute majority was 1988, when Mitterrand’s PS only won a plurality of seats despite Mitterrand’s landslide trouncing of Chirac.

If Sarkozy is reelected, however, there is an outside chance that there will be a cohabitation because of the circumstances in which Sarkozy would win reelection. However, it is still tough to see the electorate turning around in such a rapid fashion to hand somebody the elected a month ago such a stunning rebuke. The idea of cohabitation is fairly unpopular in France, and voters would be reminded of it during the course of the legislative elections’ campaign. Yet, if Sarkozy wins a magical underdog reelection, it probably won’t be through a miraculous improvement of his approval ratings to June 2007 stratospheric levels, meaning that there is a serious chance that legislative elections held in the wake of an underdog Sarkozy win could result in some surprises.

The main things to watch for in these legislative elections would be as follows:

Firstly, turnout. Turnout hit an all-time low in 2007 – 60% – which is not too surprising given the (eventually wrong) vague bleue narrative and the low stakes of the election. This year, following a presidential election which has struggled to motivate voters very much at all, how many voters will be bothered to go out to vote in an election which will, probably, be of very low stakes and even less interesting than the presidential election? It is possible that turnout could descend to catastrophic (for French legislative elections) levels nearing only 50%.

Secondly, in the most likely scenario of a Hollande victory, the overall performance of the left. Will the PS and its close allies win an absolute majority on their own, or will they be in a ‘minority’ situation dependent on either the centre or the Left Front (FG)?

Within the left, and in the context of government formation and relations during a Hollande presidency, the strength of the PS’ allies – notably the Greens – will be very important. In November 2011, the Greens and the PS signed a controversial electoral deal which gives the Greens (who currently hold only three seats) at least 15 seats if not nearer to 25-30 members (enough for a parliamentary group of their own). Some Greens are concerned about the PS’ goodwill in the wake of a humiliating result for their candidate, Eva Joly, on April 22. Some Socialists, including sitting PS deputies who got shafted by the deal, showed their displeasure with the deal (as did some Greens). Some incumbent PS deputies or dissident Socialists in a few constituencies are running against the Green candidate co-endorsed by the Socialists, the most high-profile of these cases being a Parisian constituency where Green leader Cécile Duflot (currently seatless) is running against the incumbent PS deputy who got dumped on the sidewalk by her party as part of the deal with the Greens.

In the broader context of the left, especially in the wake of the potential for a big success by Mélenchon on April 22, the FG will be very eager to try to convert its presidential success into a legislative success. The most recent case of a fairly surprising “presidential success” is that of Bayrou in 2007, and in his case, he totally failed in his attempt translate his presidential result into a strong result in the legislative elections. He failed because he totally misunderstood and misread the nature, makeup, attitude and politics of those who made his success on April 22, 2007. Mélenchon does not appear to be a Bayrou, that is one who overreacts to a presidential success by attempting to “transform” politics altogether. The FG will make the case to voters, especially those who voted for Mélenchon, for the necessity of a strong left-wing bench in the National Assembly to exert pressure on Hollande’s government from the left. I haven’t run through the FG’s candidates in its intricacies to assess their chances, so I cannot expand much on this point.

Assuming Hollande fails to win an absolute majority for the ‘close-knit’ left-wing parties (PS, PRG, Greens) and is dependent on the support of the FG or the centre in the National Assembly, then the old debate of whether or not the FG/PCF should cooperate with the PS and participate in a PS cabinet will come up again. The PCF’s leadership generally looks upon the idea of Communist participation in a PS government quite favourably, but Mélenchon has shown himself to be quite resistant to that possibility. The issue could prove a major source of tension between the PCF and Mélenchon’s friends (the PG), but it is unlikely the PG will emerge from the legislative elections with a significant caucus at all.

The third thing to look out for will be the FN, which will be aiming to regain a foothold in the legislative elections following the slap they received in the 2007 legislative elections which came on the heels of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s poor performance in the presidential election. The electoral system and high likelihood of low turnout all plays against the FN, which will struggle to win a single seat. However, if it is able to win strong results in constituencies through eastern and southeastern France, it could find itself in a make-or-break role for UMP deputies and candidates in the runoff. The probability of low turnout will reduce the number of three-way runoffs – triangulaires, thus removing the terrible shadow of 1997’s  triangulaires de la mort for the right. However, the FN’s strong showing, if it is in the backdrop of something close to a vague rose will inject the old issue of right-FN electoral alliances or unofficial deals into debates on the right as it seeks to rebuild itself after a defeat.

[updated April 18] Could you give some information about the political or personal platforms of the lower tier of candidates?
Why are they standing and who votes for them?
I’m particularly interested in Jacques Cheminade as even detailed accounts of the candidates do not elaborate on him, or even (sometimes) mention him. I have heard he is the Lyndon LaRouche affiliated candidate but what does that mean in terms of French politics and demographics?

The “small candidates” as they are often called are Eva Joly (the Greens-EELV), Nathalie Arthaud (LO), Philippe Poutou (NPA), Nicolas Dupont-Aignan (DLR) and Jacques Cheminade (S&P). Presidential elections are the “big” elections, so it is necessary for all parties and movements to try to gain a presence and a voice in the presidential elections. They know they won’t win, but the equal airtime allows them a chance to voice their platforms and get free publicity for their parties or ideas.

Joly didn’t want to be a small candidate and she started off as a second-tier candidate, not a last-tier candidate. But, not being a traditional politician, she led a very poor campaign. Like most Green candidates in presidential elections, she found her base squeezed out by Hollande who appeals to ‘pragmatic’ Greens who vote more “strategically” (against Sarkozy) or by more ‘red’ Greens who have flowed to Mélenchon. She is left with the hardcore of the Greens, more left-leaning than their ‘wider’ electorate (2009 or 2010). As mentioned above, there is a fear that her poor showing will hinder her party vis-a-vis the PS, because EELV is hungry for a parliamentary group (20+ members in the lower house) and for cabinet positions. Her platform takes up the usual Green themes (no nuclear energy, green jobs, sustainability, social justice, democratic reform, decentralization, European federalism, left-libertarianism). She got into deep controversy when she suggested removing the traditional military parade on Bastille Day (July 14). She has been mocked for her Norwegian accent in French, by the likes of Karl Lagerfeld.

Nathalie Arthaud (LO) and Philippe Poutou (NPA) are usually grouped as the “far-left candidates”, which is fair enough given that there are few differences in the platforms of both candidates. Arthaud is the successor of LO’s popular six-time contender Arlette Laguiller, who stepped down from politics after the 2007 election. Traditionally, LO is the more ‘traditional’ of the two Trotskyist-leaning parties in France – it usually sticks to old-style Marxist rhetoric about the class struggle, the bourgeoisie, exploitation of the proletariat. It focuses quasi-exclusively on economic, fiscal, monetary or social issues and does not usually touch issues such as political reform, the environment, foreign policy and so forth. On the other hand, the NPA – which is the successor of the old LCR, and is often presented as “Olivier Besancenot’s party” – has abandoned old Marxist rhetoric in favour of a New Left orientation, though still clearly on the far-left. The LCR usually was the more hippie/modern party out of the two Trot parties. Up until 2007 at least, the LCR had more appeal to non-working class urban voters, young voters and students. The NPA’s policies vis-a-vis economic issues is very much like that of LO, but it mentions environmental issues and political reforms/institutions a bit more.

Nicolas Dupont-Aignan (NDA, as he says) is a right-wing ‘paleo-Gaullist’ candidate. Dupont-Aignan is a former UMP member who left the party before the 2007 election to form a new party, Arise the Republic (DLR). NDA is a deputy in the National Assembly and a very popular mayor of Yerres, a suburban town in the Essonne department. He did not run in the 2007 election but ran in the 2009 EU and 2010 regional elections, doing decently for a small party with little funds. NDA’s political views are similar to those of Charles de Gaulle, in that he is fairly Eurosceptic (against the 2005 EU Constitution, for a ‘Europe of nations’), supports an independent foreign policy (getting out of the joint command of NATO) and has a fairly statist/colbertiste economic agenda including re-nationalizing the formerly public electricity and gas companies (EDF/GDF). He supports protectionism to fight outsourcing to foreign countries. It is surprising his candidacy has not done any better, but he likely finds himself squeezed in this “big” contest between the “big” contenders he stands between: Marine Le Pen and Nicolas Sarkozy, both of whom have of course flirted with populism and nationalism/thinly veiled nationalism.

Jacques Cheminade is the “surprise” candidate. Cheminade had already run in 1995, taking 0.3% of the vote. His movement and his ideas are indeed close to those of Lyndon LaRouche, which has led to some disagreements about how to classify him. Most sources classify him and his party on the far-right. Nobody has focused on his ideas, because they are so bizarre and unclear. Most people prefer to make his candidacy the butt of jokes, poking fun at his and LaRouchites obsession about conspiracy theories and their hatred of Elizabeth II, the “drug dealer”. He takes up a lot of LaRouche’s conspirationist views about “the world of finance” and big business, crying out against “the City” and “Wall Street” bankers or the financial oligarchy. He shares the LaRouche movement’s knack for “multinational” type technological programs through nuclear energy. For some reason, he also talks about going to outer space (he is probably concerned that aliens will take him away or something) and development in Africa. Overall, far-right seems like a fair classification but a weird type of technocratic far-right with a concern about New World Orders and black choppers. It is hard to say who are the people who vote for him, but we’ll soon find out, I guess. This post details Cheminade’s ideology and links to the LaRouche movement.

Thanks again to all readers for some great questions. In the lack of a proper preview post per se, I will be more than pleased to answer additional follow-up questions or any other questions from readers about French politics and/or the 2012 election(s) in particular.


Posted on April 16, 2012, in Election Preview, France. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. glhermine,

    As always a very good outline of the factors in play for the coming election. My question relates to French opinion polls. It seems to me that France must be the only major country in the world where regular opinion polls for parliamentary elections are not held. There’s plenty of polling data for presidential elections, even a year out before the election and before presidential candidates are even known, yet no polling data I can find anywhere for parliamentary elections.

  2. @Mrodowicz
    Since the shift in the electoral calendar, the legislative election is no longer really “important”. Everybody (correctly?) assumes that the president’s party will win the election either easily or in a cakewalk, and that’s that. There’s little use in asking voters how they’ll vote in the legislative election before the president is elected, because they’d probably change their mind once the president wins or their preferences would reflect their presidential vote. In the past, up till 2002, you probably had more regular polls for legislative elections when those things were more important; but even then, since 1962 the presidential election has been by far THE election.

  3. glhermine,

    Thanks for the response to my query above. One thing that really confuses me about French politics, is why the major parties (PS, UMP) are so “kind” to minor parties – by that I mean, why do they negotiate deals so favourable to minor parties (eg. PS & Green Party) by surrendering winnable seats to these small players. Surely if the 2 big parties played hardball, they would take more than 90% of all seats between them, and the little parties would struggle to survive. Am I missing something here?

  4. @Mrodowicz
    The PS and UMP could indeed play hardball and crush the small parties in the “big” elections (presidential/legislative), but they cannot really afford to do that. Still, even if they did, some parties like the PC in particular have a strong enough solid core of MPs which could resist a PS onslaught. The PS failed pretty bad in its recent attempts to topple PC mayors in 2008.

    In other elections (regionals, local, EU) which are fought on a proportional representation basis (or a bastardized hybrid), where voters often vote with their middle fingers, the sidekicks (Greens, PC) can be attractive options to unhappy left-wingers and so forth. The 1984, 1989, 1999 and 2009 Euros are great examples, as are the 1992 regionals. They can’t afford to tell their minor partners to go screw themselves, because it might backfire on them afterwards. Some may say that it suits the PS/UMP to have allies who are catch-all for more protesty voters and those who don’t like the “UMPS”, but that’s all subjective politics.

    In all cases, the deals might not be great for EELV or the PC, but they’re better off with crumbs than with nothing. The FN can tell them how it works for a party which can’t/won’t ally with any other party, while the old Greenies remember 1993 when they won 0 seats despite winning some 14% in total.

  5. Corey Olomon

    How important, are the minor parties within UMP and in the case of the SP, GRP? Also since the remains of the UDF (NC and of course, MDP who left years ago) have left UMP, do they have any hope in the legislative elections?

  6. @Corey Olomon

    The UMP and PS’ closest partisan allies are not very important. The UMP has affiliated, more or less, with three parties now: the PDC, CPNT and MPF. The PDC is led by Christine Boutin, and represents the most socially conservative/’Christian humanist’ wing of the UMP. Boutin has a love-hate relationship with the UMP and Sarkozy, more on the hate side since 2009 (when she was dumped from cabinet) but a bit on the love side when she decided to bow out of the running for 2012 to back Sarkozy (iirc, when he said he opposed gay marriage).

    CPNT is the ‘hunters party’ which has been dying off since its electoral rout(s) in 2007, choosing to save itself by affiliating itself with the MPF (in 2009) and now with the UMP. Its leader, Frederic Nihous, wanted to run this year but did not get his 500 endorsements and endorsed Sarkozy.

    The MPF is the dying party of Philippe de Villiers, whose resignation from the general council of Vendee in 2010 ended his political career nationally and signed the death warrant for his party which is left with few politicians besides him (their rising star, Guillaume Peltier joined the UMP and their other top elected official, ex-FN Orange mayor Jacques Bompard formed his own party). The party still has 2 deputies and 1 senator, and they will likely save their 2 deputies this year though one (Dominique Souchet) elected in a 2008 by-election faces a tough contest from his predecessor, Joel Sarlot, who is not MPF.

    More relevant are some of the more or less organized factions within the UMP. The biggest and most structured one is the Droite populaire, which represents the party’s right which plays tough on immgiration, criminality, French nationalism and favours an alliance of sorts with the FN. The more moderate/social Gaullist wing, led by Laurent Wauquiez and supported by Xavier Bertrand has tried to structure itself. Some ex-UDF Christian democrats have tried to create a centrist/liberal/humanist faction too.

    There are some centrist parties which flirt with the centre and UMP alike. You have Eric Besson’s pretty useless party/club; plus the Modern Left (LGM) which has 2 MEPs by the good graces of the UMP but isn’t going anywhere now that its leader, the PS-turned-Sarkozyst-turned-Borlooist mayor of Mulhouse Jean-Marie Bockel is not going anywhere.

    For the PS, the PRG is not really relevant – never has been since 1994, probably. Its leader ran in the 2011 open primaries and got crushed, but the PRG got a good deal with the PS for the legislative elections and could win 10+ seats in case of a left-wing victory, probably, and get a cabinet position (or two!). There is not much relevance to the PRG anymore, and the chances of a reunification of the Radical family are still very low.

    For the remnants of the UDF in the legislative elections, a lot depends on how it goes for the right overall and the UMP’s attitudes towards NC incumbents. The NC parliamentarians have usually been “good” with the UMP/government, so they should save their seats provided they have right-leaning constituencies. I think almost all if not all their incumbents won’t face official UMP rivals. The MoDem will not be very relevant in June, but Bayrou is solid in his own seat (no UMP rival) and his neighbor/colleague Jean Lassalle should be solid too save in cases of a left-wing sweep. The ARES is running a few candidates, but it won’t go too far. There is a minor centrist party, the AC, which is way bigger in the Senate, but which still has two deputies. One of its members (Benoit, Ille-et-Vilaine) is in a tougher situation, the other (Folliot, Tarn) is probably a favourite. I have not gone through candidacies yet, so I don’t know the situation constituency-by-constituency.

    Please note that I have added the answer to another question in the above post.

  7. Good and interesting analysys. Do you think that Melenchon will have a pact with the socialists to avoid “death triangles” at the legislative elections or not?

  8. @Johnny88

    Melenchon has ruled out any deals with the PS, and there are usually few/no deals for the legislative elections between the PCF and PS in the first round but there is an unwritten rule/”republican discipline” whereby the left-wing candidate of the two who places behind the top left-wing candidate would drop out of the runoff if qualified and/or would endorse the first placed left-wing candidate. Melenchon might, like Marchais in 1978, toy around with the idea of not following this rule, but in practice I’d kind of doubt it. The PS will more likely than not drop its candidates who place behind a FG candidate in any constituency in June, and vice-versa. Both know that three-way runoffs with two left-wing candidates (FG and PS) would be suicide in a lot of places, and the relations/power politics between the PC and PS are a whole world away from the relations between the FN and the mainstream right.

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