The U.S. is not the only major democracy in the world with a crucial presidential election this year. France, the second-most powerful nation in Europe will host what is likely to be a highly contentious poll for president, amidst a backdrop of economic worries, racial tensions and other issues.
President Nicholas Sarkozy will seek to remain in office, as members of rival parties, including the Socialists will do everything they can to end his political career.
Elections in France are quite different from the U.S. campaigns. In France, the president is elected to a five-year term after two rounds of voting.
International Business Times spoke to an expert on French politics to assess the situation in the country.
Douglas Yates is a professor of political science at the American Graduate School in Paris as well as The American University of Paris.
IB TIMES: Is Nicholas Sarkozy facing a very tough re-election? What is the French electorate’s principal criticism of his regime?
YATES: Yes, he has several well-established rivals with double-digit popularity in the polls. Francois Holland of the Socialist Party, Marine Le Pen of the National Front, and Francois Bayrou of Movement Democrat are all nibbling away at Sarkozy’s electorate.
The Socialists criticize his lack of sympathy for the poor. The ultra-nationalists complain that he is not doing enough for ordinary French people.
The centrists complain that he spends too much time in polar opposition to the Left, and not enough on working on the common interests.
IB TIMES: French unemployment is at 12 percent and climbing. Plus, S&P recently downgraded France’s sovereign debt. Is the economy the dominant theme of this election?
YATES: Of course, because Sarkozy was largely elected on a promise to redress the French economy, which, unfortunately for him, was prevented by the global economic crisis.
The number one concern of French voters is unemployment, and all of the main candidates have this as a principal theme of their campaigns.
IB TIMES: The senate elections of last year resulted in big gains for the Socialists. Does this harbinger a victory for the Socialists in the presidential elections and spell doom for Sarkozy?
YATES: The Socialist conquest of the senate was the fruit of a long-term strategy, because the senate is indirectly elected by thousands of local politicians in France.
What happened was that, after many successful victories in municipal and regional elections, the Socialists managed to get a majority of seats in those local governments. Much of this was based on sympathy for local officials whose budgets had been cut by Sarkozy’s reforms.
However, those elections were also ultimately about local issues.
National elections are different. They are much less policy-oriented, and much more about symbolic issues and identity politics. Analytically the two must be treated separately.
IB TIMES: The likely Socialist candidate will be Francois Hollande. Does he have much appeal with the public? Or would support for him simply be an anti-Sarkozy vote?
YATES: Francois Hollande has been rising in the polls, and while he started as a rather non-charismatic figure in the primaries, he has carefully crafted a virtue out of that “vice.”
French voters see in him as a responsible and cautious personality, unlike Sarkozy, whose flamboyant lifestyle and impulsive psychology has profoundly marked his public image.
Many people will vote for Holland in the first round because he is the Socialist candidate, and they are Socialists. But in the second round, many will vote for him because he is the opponent, representative of change.
IB TIMES: Who has been Sarkozy's main base of support? (The business elite? The urban sophisticates? The middle-class?) And will they support him again this spring?
YATES: Sarkozy’s main base of support is more partisan than sociological. While he does do better with the elderly than with the young, and while he does have more support among businessmen than unions, the best explanation for his support is that the ruling [Union pour un Mouvement Populaire] UMP party, which he created as a coalition of various smaller parties of the center right and right.
The UMP is a fairly large ideological family, running from centrist social conservatives to neo-liberals and Gaullist nationalists. When Sarkozy is at his strongest, he binds together each of these traditions to draw votes away from the centrists, and even the ultra-nationalists. When he is at his weakest, his opponents draw those same voters away from him.
IB TIMES: How well is Marine Le Pen of the National Front polling? Could she be a deciding factor in the election? That is, might Sarkozy adopt a harder anti-immigrant stance in order to siphon votes away from her? Presumably, the Socialist candidate could not appeal to any right-wing voters.
YATES: Throughout all of Europe we have seen the rise in the polls of extreme right political parties. In France, the same effect has been observed for the National Front. Marine Le Pen is, in my opinion the deciding factor in this election. Despite the fact that almost all of the polls show Francois Hollande defeating Nicolas Sarkozy in the second round, it is my opinion that in the end, the voters on the center right, right, and extreme right will outweigh the voters on the left.
If Sarkozy makes it to the second round, he will win. This is why Marine Le Pen is decisive. If she gets to the second round, everyone else will vote for Sarkozy as the ‘anti-Le Pen’ vote, just like they did for Jacques Chirac back in 2002.
If Hollande gets to the second round, then her voters on the extreme right will vote for Sarkozy, because he’s on the right.
IB TIMES: Will Dominique Strauss-Kahn [DSK] play any role whatsoever in the election? Or will the Socialists seek to distance themselves from him as much as possible?
YATES: No, for the moment DSK is a political liability. He still has a network of supporters, and has managed to survive the legal battles in the United States and France. But his re-entry into politics will probably come in the form of a nomination either to a ministerial post or to an international agency. For now, nobody wants to get too close to him.
IB TIMES: How does the French press view the move by the government to punish those who question the Armenian genocide? Is it being seen as a naked attempt by Sarkozy to appeal to French-Armenian voters in the election? Are there enough Armenians in France to make a difference?
YATES: There are around a half-million Armenian voters in France, and they can make a real difference in the first round of the presidential election. But more importantly, they will continue to vote, and therefore have a long-term impact.
This is probably what we have seen in the recent vote in the National Assembly, the fruit of a long-term lobbying effort by the Armenian community.
Sarkozy is not the mastermind of the genocide law, but rather its shepherd.
As for the Turks, he had enough problems with them because of his opposition to them joining the European Union (EU).
IB TIMES: There are some 5-million Muslims in France, I presume many are citizens and can vote. Who would they support in the presidential election?
YATES: Sarkozy is able to draw Muslim voters, because of international issues where France has taken a stand like recognition of Palestine or the military mission to overthrow Gadaffi in Libya.
But many Muslims are angry with him because of his stands on immigration and anti-Islamic discourses related to French national identity.
He has strategically chosen to appeal more to extreme right voters than Muslim voters, leaving many of them to his Socialist rivals.
IB TIMES: Are the French interested in the US election campaign, or are they indifferent to it? How popular (or unpopular) is Obama in France?
YATES: The French are interested in all things American, but their interest is intellectual, and largely self-referential. They are less concerned about concrete American foreign policy issues than they are with what American politics might have to say about France and its role in the world.
The French have proven themselves capable of working closely with both the Republicans and the Democrats, and even though a large majority of the French public likes Obama, the French government can work with a Republican [U.S.] president just as well.