360° Analysis

Four Percent for Sarko’s Seat


May 04, 2012 09:30 EDT
In order to win the next round of the presidential election against Hollande, Sarkozy needs to win back the votes he lost from his own center-right, Orléanist base.

According to the latest polls, Sarkozy is shy of just over 4% of votes, in order to retain his presidential seat. Where he finds the missing votes will be the determining factor in his fight for survival against Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande next week. However, gaining votes from outsider parties is not his only challenge; between the ebbs and flows of his courtship of the far right, he has also lost the attention and the patience of his own center-right, Orléanist base.

Considering the events of the past two weeks, it seems that the far-right Front National (FN) will – quite fittingly – be the king-maker this year. Quite fittingly at least from a historical perspective, for a party that emerged from the ashes of the Revolution with the aim of filling the French throne. In the unexpected turnout of the first round on April 22nd, the FN’s candidate Marine Le Pen won the votes of a record 6.4mn people, or 17.9% of total votes. Le Pen came in third behind Sarkozy and Hollande, but it was a record for her party.

Ever since these ballots were published, Sarkozy has tried quite hard (and not too subtly) to bring her voters closer to his side. A few days earlier, in a speech at Arras on April 18th Sarkozy still catered to the center-right and deplored those who “missed the values of the Republic”, who “resorted to fear, hate, and rejection [of others]”, and “voted for solutions that were mere delusions”. By April 23rd the president’s speech at Saint-Cyr-sur-Loire revealed another tone. He iterated that “there is no choice more or less noble than another [in elections]”, and pledged to “respect every Frenchman’s choice”. His way of doing so would be to “answer their [the far right’s] demands”. This is not the first time that Sarkozy has extended his hand to the right. As a presidential candidate in 2007, Sarkozy had already tried to entice the FN with proposals including a ministry for Immigration and a ministry for National Identity – one of his many short-lived experiments.

The probability that Sarkozy will be successful in attracting these voters is currently lower than in the previous election. In 2007, the FN had only achieved 5.7% in the first round.  The additional 12.2% they garnered this year – largely from rural areas and northern city outskirts – were mobilized by their dissatisfaction with the outgoing president’s performance. The FN is indeed proving difficult to assuage and has responded to Sarko’s pleas with exasperation at his mauvaise foi (untrustworthiness). Simultaneously, French newspapers accused the president of cynicism, and of breaking down the political cordon sanitaire that ensures the separation of the French center-right from the far right.

But while Sarkozy flirts with Le Pen’s voters, he must simultaneously tender to the increasingly fragile support from his home base, the “Orléanists”. This nickname stands for one of the two largest factions of the traditionally rightist UMP party, a segment that upholds economically liberal and socially conservative ideals. In the past five years, those ideals have been severely frustrated. In 2007 Sarkozy promised them a grand economic liberalization, spearheaded by the Attali Commission. Alas, one taxi strike and a financial meltdown later, the plan was watered down. The promise to rationalize the French budget achieved negligible impact as public spending remained at a record level of 56% of GDP over the past three years (while Germany and UK decreased public spending from 47% to 45%). A commitment to achieve administrative and fiscal rationalization for self-contractors has still not been fully implemented either.

Regardless, at the beginning of his campaign in Marseille, Sarkozy opened the floor by detailing his ability to “protect the French” throughout the “darkest times”, through the strength of his government’s decisions – a rather bold comparison between the Financial crisis and World War II. A few days later, on another podium in the TV studios of TF1, the president dodged the questions of several centre-right entrepreneurs who confronted him about his failure to push through the reforms he had promised them.

Next to a collection of sweeping statements about what it means to be French, about the importance of protecting, the very peculiar (French) ways of lining houses, of planting trees along the roads, of breaking into laughter, and other vulgar declinations of such ‘je ne sais quoi’, the truth is that Sarkozy has, in domestic policy, delivered much in style but little in substance. Voters in the centre and on the right are amused by his electoral bravado, but they remain to be convinced of Sarkozy’s ability to protect their interests and answer their demands. Sarkozy’s “missing 4%” are not just votes he needs to gain outside his party; they are also the votes of non-confidence, the votes he has lost within his own.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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