Prelude (2007-2012)

< previous chapter: The French presidency and presidential elections

Socialist candidate François Hollande was elected President in May 2012, defeating incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy 51.6% to 48.4%. Sarkozy, elected in 2007, became only the second president of the Fifth Republic to lose reelection after Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (who lost to Socialist candidate François Mitterrand in 1981). In good part, Hollande owed his fairly narrow victory to widespread anti-sarkozysme among the French left.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s rise and fall (2007-2012)

Results of the 2007 presidential election by constituency (own map)

Sarkozy had been elected in 2007 with 53% of the vote in the second round. He had a comparatively ‘innovative’ right-wing platform promising economic reforms and tougher policies on immigration and security. He had enthused much of the right and a large chunk of the far-right by casting himself as a reformer who would break from the ‘immobilism’ of the Jacques Chirac presidency (1995-2007) and, more broadly, ‘free’ the right of its inhibitions – la droite décomplexée (uninhibited right) became a favourite formula of sarkozysme. In the first round, with his tough (and credible) right-wing rhetoric on immigration and security, he had managed to win about 20% of far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen’s 2002 electorate – in so doing, dramatically weakening the far-right Front national (National Front, FN) from 16.9% to 10.4%.

After taking office, his presidential majority in the National Assembly passed a number of significant laws – university autonomy, a ‘fiscal package’ (tax exemption for overtime hours, inheritance tax cuts, wealth tax reductions, a ‘tax shield’ reducing the share of income that can be taken by direct taxes and social contributions from 60% to 50% etc.), mandatory sentences for repeat offenders, stricter immigration rules, preventive detention after a violent offender’s sentence and a reform of the special retirement systems. Several of these measures were criticized by diverse interest groups and the left-wing opposition, particularly the ‘fiscal package’ and its ‘tax shield’ which were widely perceived as a ‘gift’ to the rich. In 2011, the controversial ‘tax shield’ – criticized by a substantial minority within Sarkozy’s own majority – was removed, compensated by a simplification and reduction of wealth tax (ISF) rates.

French voters are infamous for turning on their presidents very quickly. Political honeymoons don’t last. Jacques Chirac’s popularity collapsed within months of taking office in 1995. It was no different for Nicolas Sarkozy, whose approvals and disapprovals were already tied by December 2007. His (un)popularity stabilized and even improved between the summer of 2008 and the fall of 2009, with the beginning of the global economic crisis and Sarkozy’s visible international and European leadership role in response to it (as well as his government’s €26-34 billion stimulus package in December 2008). With the economic crisis, Sarkozy shifted – at least in rhetoric – away from the economically liberal line he had been associated with, declaring the end of laissez-faire capitalism and affirming a more interventionist agenda. The economic crisis, stimulus spending and the revenue losses stemming from the 2007 ‘fiscal package’ resulted in a massive budget deficit in 2009 and 2010 (7.5% and 7% of GDP). Unemployment increased from 7% in early 2008 to 9.5% in late 2009, before declining slightly to 9.1% in 2011.

More than his policies, it was Sarkozy’s personality and style which quickly made him unpopular – especially as, unlike in the past, the Prime Minister, François Fillon, remained more popular. Sarkozy, particularly in the first years of his term, was an “hyper president” who was visible everywhere and relegated Fillon to a secondary role, redefining the traditional role of the president and effectively weakening the office of the prime minister. As time went, however, Sarkozy did begin falling in line with his predecessors’ beat and let the prime minister do some of the thankless work (like austerity policies). In his first year in office, Sarkozy regularly flaunted his wealth (between a post-election vacation on a millionaire’s yacht in Malta to an election night victory dinner for friends at a posh Parisian restaurant) and, with his Rolex watches and designer sunglasses, quickly became known as the bling-bling president, which many voters frowned upon. Sarkozy is brash, temperamental and curt, and while that may have helped him built his image as a candidate it came back to hurt him as a sitting president – French presidents can be assholes (like François Mitterrand) but only surreptitiously. Particularly in his first years, Sarkozy memorably lost his temper in public – on 60 Minutes or his famous casse-toi, pauv’ con.

After the fall of 2009, Sarkozy’s popularity consistently declined – reaching lows in the 20s in 2010 and 2011 according to some pollsters. It was due to a wide range of factors. A series of scandals and controversies significantly eroded Sarkozy’s popularity, beginning with the October 2009 controversy over his untalented son Jean’s possible candidacy for a public job, and later several ministerial scandals which forced some ministers out of cabinet. It was followed in 2010 by the Woerth-Bettencourt affair, a sordid mess involving octogenarian L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt (suffering from Alzheimer’s) and then-budget minister and party treasurer Éric Woerth with allegations of tax evasion, illegal donations to the Sarkozy 2007 campaign and conflicts of interest.

At the time of the scandal, Woerth was managing an unpopular pensions reform which increased the retirement age from 60 to 62 over six years (and automatic entitlement to a full pension at 67, rather than 65), sparking major protests and strikes across the country between March and November 2010. The government and some commentators claimed that the reform was necessary because of an aging population, rising life expectancy and the poor state of public finances. The left, trade unions and other opponents of the reform contended that the deficits which made the reform necessary were, in part, the result of the right’s various tax loopholes, the ‘fiscal shield’ and low real tax rates on big corporations.

The reform came as part of a general shift away from stimulus spending towards austerity measures to reduce France’s big debt and deficit through spending cuts and tax increases. Some of the early generous tax benefits of the quinquennat were repealed, local taxation reformed (controversial abolition of the professional tax, which went to local governments) and other taxes – like the VAT or income taxes – increased. In 2007, the government had launched a general review of public policies (RGPP) to find savings and reduce the size of the public sector through attrition. In August and November 2011, Fillon announced two austerity plans – of €12 and €7 billion – which included tax increases (exceptionally on the rich), abolition of tax loopholes and spending cuts. The worsening of the economic crisis in the Eurozone – with the Greek debt crisis – hurt Sarkozy’s popularity, particularly among the lower middle-class and working-class voters he had gained in 2007. During his quinquennat, France’s debt worsened from 64% of GDP (2007) to nearly 90% (2012), the state budget deficit grew from 2.7% of GDP to 4.9% of GDP, unemployment stood at 9.7% in 2012 (Q2) compared to 8% in 2007 and the tax burden increased to 44.3% in 2012 (from 42.4% in 2007).

Eyeing his candidacy for a second term, Sarkozy shifted to the right beginning in July 2010. Up until that point, he had tried to both please his right-wing base (and keep his 2007 gains from Le Pen) and appeal to the left – with various ‘left-wing’ policies like the Grenelle Environment talks (and the two laws which came out of it), a new welfare benefit (active solidarity income, RSA) to encourage employment and the inclusion of several left-wing personalities (like Bernard Kouchner as foreign minister) in the cabinet as part of a strategy of ouverture (‘opening’). This initial strategy was ‘encouraged’ by the remarkable success of the Greens (Europe Écologie) in the 2009 European elections (16.3%), but the ouverture irked many in Sarkozy’s own party. However, in the wake of the rather unexpected resurgence of the far-right FN in the 2010 regional (11.4%) and especially 2011 cantonal elections (15.1%), and the real threat posed to Sarkozy’s 2012 reelection prospects by the FN’s new and more palatable leader Marine Le Pen (daughter and political heiress of Jean-Marie Le Pen), Sarkozy reoriented his policies and discourse to attract far-right votes. His July 2010 discours de Grenoble marked a turning-point: following a series of crimes, Sarkozy proposed tougher penalties for those who attack or murder law enforcement officers, the loss of citizenship for naturalized citizens who attacked law enforcement officers and the dismantlement of all illegal Roma squatter camps. After his speech, the French government controversially began dismantling Roma squatter camps and deporting thousands of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma.

With disapproval ratings over 70% in some polls in the fall of 2011, Sarkozy’s reelection seemed to be an uphill battle. All polls had him losing the second round by a wide margin to the Socialist frontrunners, first IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn (arrested for sexual assault in New York in May 2011) and then François Hollande, the former party first secretary and winner of the October 2011 Socialist primaries against first secretary Martine Aubry. However, Sarkozy – proving, once more, his political adroitness – climbed back. Potential challenges on the centre-right – from former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, Sarkozy’s arch-nemesis from the Chirac presidency, and from former cabinet minister Jean-Louis Borloo – were eliminated. Sarkozy ran a markedly right-wing campaign, particularly around immigration and related hot-button issues, aiming to win far-right supporters either in the first or second round. It was a risky gamble, given that French political history till that point showed that successful presidential candidates, in general, won through consensual and moderate appeals to centrist voters rather than by polarizing public opinion.


% vote for N. Sarkozy by canton, 2012 runoff (source: geoelections)

In the first round, Sarkozy won 27.2% against 28.6% for Socialist candidate François Hollande. In a very strong third, FN candidate Marine Le Pen won 17.9%, more than what her father had won ten years prior. In fourth, radical left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon won 11% while centrist candidate François Bayrou won 9.1%. Sarkozy was defeated in the second round on May 6, Sarkozy lost to Hollande with 48.36% of the vote against 51.64%. Sarkozy had clawed his way back into contention, but he ultimately fell short: he was unable to overcome deep-set opposition to him, reinforced by the country’s poor economic outlook.

François Hollande’s rise

François Hollande was a career politician in the Socialist Party (Parti socialiste, PS) and a graduate of France’s prestigious École nationale d’administration (ENA), which trains future senior civil servants and not a few politicians. He was first elected to the National Assembly from Corrèze in 1988, defeated in 1993 but subsequently reelected in 1997, 2002 and 2007. He gained a local foothold, seen as key to a successful national political career in France, as mayor of Tulle (Corrèze) between 2001 and 2008 and later as president of the general council of Corrèze between 2008 and 2012. Incidentally, Corrèze had been Jacques Chirac’s political stronghold and adopted ‘home turf’ since the 1960s – and a young Hollande had unsuccessfully challenged Chirac in his constituency in the 1981 legislative election.

After the PS’ victory in the 1997 legislative elections, François Hollande became first secretary (leader) of the party, supported by the party’s moderate establishment. He achieved electoral successes for the party in the 2004 European and regional elections, benefiting from Jacques Chirac’s unpopularity, but his leadership capabilities were called into question following the deep internal divisions created by the 2005 European constitution referendum. A large minority faction in the party, led by Laurent Fabius, opposed the proposed EU constitution and supported the ‘No’ campaign in the referendum, against the official position of the PS. Following the 2005 referendum, he faced substantial internal opposition from the party’s left-wing factions at the 2005 Le Mans congress, but the moderate/pragmatic establishment factions behind Hollande won 54% of the vote. Quickly outpaced by the wave of support for his then-girlfriend Ségolène Royal, Hollande did not run for the party’s presidential nomination in the 2006 closed primaries, overwhelmingly won by Royal over Fabius and Strauss-Kahn. Hollande left the party leadership in 2008. Although he led the party to electoral victories in the second-order elections in 2004, under his leadership the party lost two presidential and legislative elections (2002 and 2007). As party leader, he is largely remembered as the “man of the synthèse” – ambiguous synthesis (compromise) between the different ‘motions’ (factional manifestos) at party congresses, pejoratively the synthèse molle (soft/weak synthesis).

He announced his candidacy for the 2012 presidential election in March 2011, offering himself as the “normal president” as opposed to the bling-bling hyper-president Sarkozy and jet-set IMF boss DSK. After DSK’s arrest, Hollande became the favourite of the open primary, in which he was opposed to the party’s first secretary Martine Aubry but also Arnaud Montebourg (on the party’s left, advocating ‘deglobalization’), Ségolène Royal, Manuel Valls and Jean-Michel Baylet. Hollande led the strongest campaign, and positioned himself strategically among the candidates: moderate and vague, but sufficiently left-wing on certain key issues to reassure or convince a left-wing core electorate. The October 2011 primary marked a landmark first in French electoral history: the first presidential primary open to all voters (rather than just party members), in exchange for a symbolic 1 euro contribution to organization costs and signing a ‘charter of adhesion to left-wing values’. The primary was a success, drawing 2.6 million voters in the first round and 2.8 million in the second round. Hollande won 39.2% in the first round against 30.4% for Aubry, and with the success of all four other candidates, won 56.6% in the second round.

Hollande’s presidential campaign, in good part running on popular feelings of anti-sarkozysme, played to both the centre and the left: reassuring moderate voters of his ‘seriousness’ on fiscal issues (debts and deficits), but also reassuring left-wing voters suspicious of his ‘softness’ and ambiguities with strongly left-wing rhetoric. In January 2012, at a campaign rally, he enthused the left by declaring that his real adversary was finance, later complemented by his emblematic promise to impose a 75% tax on the share of annual income over 1 million euros. In the runoff debate against Sarkozy, he memorably defined the kind of president he would be (moi président de la République or me, president of the republic) in direct opposition to Sarkozy’s record.

After his victory on May 6, Hollande appointed Jean-Marc Ayrault as Prime Minister. Ayrault was a veteran PS parliamentarian (since 1986) who had presided the PS group in the National Assembly for 15 years; he shared Hollande’s conciliatory personality, or rather his aversion to confrontation and preference for ambiguous compromise. The government included Hollande loyalists, the party’s left (Arnaud Montebourg as industry minister, Benoît Hamon as junior minister, Christiane Taubira as justice minister), the party’s centre and right (Manuel Valls as interior minister, Pierre Moscovici as finance minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian as defense minister) and the PS’ allies – Europe Écologie Les Verts (EELV, greens) and the satellite Left Radicals (Parti radical de gauche, PRG). In the June 2012 legislative elections, the incoming presidential majority obtained an absolute majority in the National Assembly – with 331 out of 577 seats, including 297 (an absolute majority) in the PS group, 17 in the EELV group and 16 in a Left Radical group.

next chapter: François Hollande’s presidency >

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