French Vote in Parliamentary Elections
French Vote in Parliamentary Elections Reuters

As jubilant Socialists in France celebrate Francois Hollande’s victory over Nicolas Sarkozy, the new occupant of Élysée Palace will face a multitude of challenges, both from without (mainly a recalcitrant Germany) and from within (the threat of the extreme right-wing National Front).

Douglas Yates, assistant professor of political science at the American University of Paris and professor at the American Graduate School in Paris, attributed Sarkozy’s loss partially to his inability to attract a significant portion of Marine Le Pen’s voters in the second round. Apparently, a great many National Front supporters heeded their leader’s advice to cast blank ballots in protest.

Meanwhile, Hollande likely swept all of the leftist voters in France, while gaining a sizable percentage of centrists.

Hollande, who gained about 52 percent of the electorate in Sunday’s poll (somewhat less than predicted), has already vowed to scale back austerity measures imposed by his predecessor and also seeks to renegotiate the European Union treaty on fiscal discipline. The Socialist wants to focus more on growth instead of spending cuts.

However, Germany has asserted that the EU budget pact cannot be changed, although Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government warmly congratulated Hollande on his victory.

From our point of view a new negotiation of the fiscal compact is not possible, Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said during a news conference.

We don't want growth through new debt; rather we want growth through structural reforms.

Indeed, as the first Socialist president in France since Francois Mitterrand’s last term ended in 1995, Hollande is surrounded by conservative governments in neighboring Germany, Spain and Britain.

While German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle congratulated Hollande on his election, calling it an “historic event,” he ominously added that the new leadership in France must abide by the euro zone’s commitment to fiscal restraint and debt reduction.

Overcoming the debt crisis is a joint objective, a German-French objective,” Westerwelle said.

“We have agreed on a fiscal treaty for less debt and we will now jointly draft a growth pact that will create more growth alongside greater competitiveness. We have no doubt that we will fulfill our joint task for Europe to be a stabilizing factor, a motor for the European development also with the future French government.”

Westerwelle’s admonitions are in stark contrast to Hollande’s economic program from France. During his victory speech, the new French president explicitly disavowed austerity.

“Europe is watching us,” he declared. “The moment that I was announced president, I am sure in many European countries there was a relief, hope at the idea that at last austerity is no longer inevitable, and my mission is to give to European construction the dream of growth. Europe is watching us; austerity can no longer be the only option.”

In fact, Hollande has vowed to impose a raft of economic measures that would be anathema to Sarkozy, including raising taxes on big corporations and millionaires; hiking the minimum wage; reducing the mandatory retirement age to 60 from 62; and hiring more than 60,000 teachers.

Yates is skeptical about some of Hollande's economic proposals.

“I never took Hollande's promises seriously, because I don't believe in campaign promises,” Yates commented.

“Certainly the hiring of 60,000 new teachers will be difficult to accomplish. But as he made clear in the recent weeks of the campaign, he had only promised a progressive hiring of those teachers over the five years of his mandate.”

Hollande’s promise to challenge the fiscal pact signed with other members of the EU is another story, Yates added.

“[Hollande] is very likely to bring this proposal before the Council of Europe when the heads of state [and government] meet in Brussels,” he said.

“This will be his first test as a European leader. It will also reveal how effective he is at multilateral diplomacy in the international arena.”

For now, Hollande will have about ten days to form a new government – including naming a new prime minister -- until Sarkozy officially hands him the keys to the presidency on May 15.

Hugh Schofield, a BBC correspondent Paris, noted that Hollande will have little time to enjoy his new power since he must face parliamentary elections in early June.

“Hollande needs a parliamentary majority in order to see through his program,” Schofield wrote.

“At the moment, the assembly is dominated by supporters of… Sarkozy. Parliamentary elections like these that immediately follow presidential elections tend to deliver the head of state the majority he requires, but it is not a foregone conclusion; the next few weeks in France will see yet more passionate political campaigning.”

Domestically, Hollande faces the looming threat of the National Front party and its leader, Marine Le Pen, who gained almost 18 percent of the vote in the first-round of the presidential elections. Hollande, who is at the polar end of the ideological spectrum of the Front, will nonetheless have to address the needs of this vocal segment of the population, who (among other things) want to see an immediate end to illegal immigration in France.

With Sarkozy out of the way, Le Pen becomes the leading “face” of the French right.

However, Yates believes Le Pen -- despite her historic strong showing in the first round of elections – also faces some obstacles in her quest to consolidate power in next month’s parliament polls.

“Marine Le Pen did well in the presidential elections, but her problem with the legislative elections is that France does not use a proportional representation system,” Yates said.

“Although she won around one-in-five voters in the presidential elections, there is no one predicting that she will win one-in-five seats in the legislatives.”

Yates cited the example of centrist politician Francois Bayrou, who gained about 9 percent of this year’s first-round vote and threw his support behind Hollande in the run-off.

“[Bayrou] had a similarly strong vote in 2007 in the presidential elections, but he saw his party reduced to a handful of deputies in the subsequent legislative elections,” he noted.

“Jean-Luc Melenchon, the candidate of the extreme left who received around 11 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections, is currently having a hard time finding anything like that kind of support in the upcoming legislative elections.”

Meanwhile, what becomes of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party in the wake of Sarkozy’s defeat?

Yates believes the party will survive intact without its former, high-profile and charismatic leader.

“UMP… has several very ambitious personalities ready to take [Sarkozy’s] place,” Yates said.

“First and foremost is the prime minister, Francois Fillon, who remained more popular than his president during the entire five-year mandate. Fillon is going to be running for a seat in a new electoral district in Paris -- however, if he does not win, [he] will not be in a position to lead the parliamentary opposition.”

That would appear to leave Jean-Francois Copé as a likely successor.

“[Copé is] an abrasive former lawyer who is considered the pit-bull of the UMP,” Yates noted.

“He has personal ambitions, and has been running the party in parliament for the past years. He is well prepared to be a leader of the opposition in the National Assembly (and that is the future role of the UMP party).”