The Magazine

Le Showdown

The French presidential election is down to its last two-and-a-half candidates.

May 7, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 32 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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In March, in a pizza parlor near the Boulevard St-Germain, an American journalist suggested to the sociologist Louis Chauvel, author of a bestselling book about the decline of the French middle class, that French voters often seemed not to know their own best interests. "You will never understand anything about French politics," Chauvel interrupted, "if you try to understand it rationally."

The first round of France's presidential elections, held April 22, proved him right. Out of a dozen candidates, two now move to the second round, slated for May 6. The brash former interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy took 31 percent of the vote. Ségolène Royal, the beautiful common-law wife of the Socialist party chairman, who rose out of her party's second tier to prove herself a politician of uncanny charisma, was just behind him at 26. Going into this election, polls showed 70 percent of French people thought their country was in decline. Forty percent professed to be undecided just days before the election.

But they didn't behave that way. Eighty-five percent of the public showed up to vote, the highest tally in a first round since 1965. Interview shows with the major candidates throughout the campaign could draw a sixth of the country to their television sets. Extremists seemed to be the big losers. The fascistic National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen suffered its first major reverse in two decades, falling to 10 percent. The French Communist party, once a European powerhouse, finished seventh, pulling in a microscopic 2 percent of the vote. French editorialists are confidently writing the obituary of both, explaining their survival as somehow linked to outgoing president Jacques Chirac, a holdover of the Cold War. But it is not that simple.

The French system of presidential elections is similar to the one Louisiana still uses in many of its elections. The first round is open to all comers, provided they can gather enough signatures from the country's mayors. The top two face off against one another, no matter what their tallies are. This system produces perversities. In the last presidential elections in 2002, the hard left--antiglobalist, Trotskyite, and otherwise--was so energized that it drew votes away from the Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, with the result that not Jospin but Le Pen made it into the second round. This enabled Chirac, who in those pre-Iraq days had rock-bottom approval ratings, to win re-election in the second round with 82 percent of the vote.

This year's perversity is somewhat different. It is that Ségolène Royal, after a bold start to her campaign, fell into such a slough of incompetence that she drew an opportunistic alternative candidate into the race: François Bayrou, a marginal politician of the center right, with no platform and no program. He won 18 percent of the vote, not enough to advance to the second round but enough for him to claim (whether credibly or delusionally) a role as power broker. Drawn into the campaign by the widespread impression that Royal was unfit to be president, he may wind up making her president.

Little rascals

The election was, as virtually all the candidates admitted, a referendum on whether the French wanted to be ruled by Nicolas Sarkozy, probably the most gifted European politician of his generation and certainly the most polarizing. A lot of French voters were comfortable with the idea. The 11 million votes Sarkozy received were a record for first round candidates. In fact, he got more votes than the top two candidates of 2002 combined. A onetime protégé of Chirac who has become a bitter rival, Sarkozy describes himself as a "man of the right"--but his campaign was a Nixonian mix of tough-on-crime rhetoric (he plans to introduce minimum sentences into the French criminal justice system) and programs of the left (such as affirmative action).

This left-wing side to Sarkozy allowed him to pay homage to his opponents while throwing them off-balance, and to bolster his claims to represent all Frenchmen. Thus, while he was the only candidate with a serious plan to shrink the French state, he planned to do so by natural attrition, filling only half the spots that opened up due to retirements. He talked about the "moralization of investment capitalism" (a favorite trope of the antiglobalists), opined that France should have been more protectionist towards its steel industry in recent decades, and promised Le Monde that his very first act as president would be to convene a conference to guarantee salary equality between men and women.