Big Promises and Bigger Illusions: Personalities Trump Policies in French Presidential Campaign
French voters go to the polls for the first round of the presidential election on Sunday. So far, it's been a strange campaign in which personalities have played a bigger role than the country's troubled economy. The French media have focused primarily on the fate of President Nicolas Sarkozy -- a fate which remains uncertain.
Jacques Cheminade, a French presidential candidate for the Lyndon LaRouche-affiliated Solidarity and Progress Party, says that if he is elected he will colonize Mars. He also sees no problem in comparing Barack Obama with Adolf Hitler.
Four million French viewers tuned in last Thursday to see Cheminade appear on a special election edition of "Des paroles et des actes" ("Words and Actions"), a political TV show on the public network France 2. Later that evening, it was Trotskyite Nathalie Arthaud's turn to present her party platform. Arthaud wants to abolish the free market economy, and sings the praises of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Cheminade and Arthaud are among the fringe candidates in the first round of the presidential elections on April 22. They each receive roughly half a percent of the vote in recent opinion polls. But they have obtained the requisite 500 signatures from elected officials needed to run for president, placing them among the 10 official candidates. Furthermore, TV stations are legally required to give them equal airtime -- precisely the same amount granted to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was also only allowed to speak for 16 minutes that evening on "Des paroles et des actes."
The winner of the French election won't be known until May 6, when the two top candidates face each other in a runoff election. It will presumably be a contest between Sarkozy and his challenger from the Socialist Party, François Hollande.
Hopeless Fringe Candidates
It's a strange election campaign that is entering its final phase these days in France. On the surface, at least, French presidential elections may have similarities with their American counterparts, where two politicians face off in a duel for power.
But there's also something rather old-fashioned about the French version. Most of the candidates write statesman-like books that people actually buy -- and when they appear on TV, they grandly announce that their appearance is a rendezvous with the voters. One of the peculiarities of this election is the current lineup of hopeless fringe candidates, who the French call les petits candidats. They are the tolerated court jesters in a choreographed show, which ultimately results in the people electing a new king.
In this election year, we should be particularly grateful for the outsiders. They lend color to an election campaign that would otherwise be somewhat depressing. On the one hand, there is an incumbent whom the majority of French voters find distasteful -- and who is doing everything in his power to convince them that he is the only one who can lead the country.
On the other hand, there is the Socialist candidate Hollande, who has been outdistancing his rival in head-to-head matchups for months and enjoys a reputation as a solid pragmatist, yet has failed to capture the hearts of voters with his pencil-pusher charm. Surveys show that two-thirds of Hollande's supporters are primarily interested in thwarting Sarkozy's bid for reelection.
In short, the French have the choice between a man they no longer want and a man they don't really want.
A Post-Election Hangover
The sense of paralysis that characterizes this election campaign has much to do with a largely unspoken truth: No matter who wins, within just a matter of days after the election all of the candidates' political programs will prove useless. On May 7, after the post-election celebration, the French will wake up with a hangover.
Economically speaking, France is a sick country. It has a national debt that is running at 90 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), and the country hasn't had a balanced budget since 1974. France has the highest public spending ratio of the euro zone: 57 percent of its economic output depends on life support from the government. Unemployment is at 10 percent and there is an entire generation of immigrant children who are growing up in ghetto-like suburbs and have little contact with the labor market.
The country has already lost its triple-A credit rating from Standard & Poor's, and many experts and politicians fear that the financial markets could next attack the second-largest economy in the euro zone. Although France's situation is not remotely comparable with that of Greece or Spain, the country has been hard hit and rising interest rates on its sovereign bonds would significantly exacerbate the euro crisis.
During the election campaign, little has been said about the country's dramatic situation -- particularly with regard to the austerity measures that would be necessary to resolve France's problems. While government auditors are calling on France to save 100 billion ($131 billion) over the next five years, Hollande has announced new expenditures of 20 billion and, in the traditional socialist manner, would rather increase tax revenues than reduce public spending. Although Sarkozy says that he intends to make cutbacks, he has already missed that opportunity over the past five years in office.
Image of a Powerful France
Instead of addressing these issues, the candidates are trying to woo voters with the familiar image of a powerful France that can flex its political muscle across Europe. Hollande plans to renegotiate the European fiscal pact that has been signed by 25 countries. Sarkozy has threatened to withdraw from the Schengen Agreement unless more is done to stop illegal immigration. This reflects France's longing for a greatness that is jeopardized by precisely the economic weaknesses that the candidates appear virtually powerless to overcome.
No one better exemplifies the unrealistic proposals being tossed around in this election campaign than left-wing populist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Opinion polls show that Mélenchon, representing the Left Front, is poised to receive up to 17 percent of the vote during the first round. Thanks to Mélenchon's success among left-wing voters, Hollande could end up trailing Sarkozy on Sunday's first round of voting.
Mélenchon wants to raise the minimum monthly wage to 1,700 -- and he's calling for a 100-percent tax on all personal income above 360,000. What's more, he says that France should withdraw from NATO. Mélenchon is a charismatic speaker. At his campaign rallies -- held at places like the Place de la Bastille in Paris -- tens of thousands of supporters wave red flags and sing the left-wing anthem "The Internationale."
His success has made him into something of a pop star. The YouTube hit of the past few days has been a spoof pop video of a scantily-clad blonde singing: "Take power over me, Jean-Luc."
The Left Front's candidate is the only surprise in this election campaign, and could even edge out right-wing populist Marine Le Pen to take third place in the first round. One year ago, Le Pen was ahead of the president in the opinion polls -- but, as in 2007, Sarkozy has adopted portions of her political platforms, allowing him to secure the support of many right-wing voters.
Asking Tough Questions
The second star of this election campaign is not a candidate, but a bald business journalist named François Lenglet. He achieved cult status because, during the special election editions of "Des paroles et des actes," he demonstrated to all of the candidates how preposterous their economic proposals were -- often with the help of charts and diagrams. Granted, this didn't put a dent in their delusions of economic grandeur, but it at least added some sense of reality.
Many candidates felt insulted. They are used to being fawned over by French journalists during interviews. Critical journalism, as practiced by Lenglet, is rarely seen on television. As for the print media, French newspapers are divided into two political camps: The conservative Le Figaro defends the government's policies and attacks Hollande on a daily basis, while the left-wing Libé ration is campaigning for Hollande.
Over the past few months, most French media have focused mainly on the question of whether Sarkozy can manage to get reelected. One week before the first round of voting, no conclusive answer has emerged, but the likelihood of the incumbent winning this election was slim from the start -- and it hasn't improved.
Failing to Mobilize Voters
In the wake of the attacks in Toulouse and Montauban, the president enjoyed a brief surge in the opinion polls, but he has been unable to reduce the significant lead projected for Hollande in the runoff election. Another important aspect, though, is which candidate can best mobilize his voters. This will be a challenge for Hollande, who, despite his lead, fails to rouse any enthusiasm.
But the big duel between the two men -- celebrated and amplified by the media -- has overshadowed the actual struggle. Whoever wins the election, Sarkozy or Hollande, will be forced to pursue fairly similar and undoubtedly painful reform policies.
Until then, Jacques Cheminade may be the most bizarre candidate, but the man who wants to colonize Mars is certainly not the only one with his head in the clouds. No matter what the outcome of this election is, the return to Earth promises to be a rough landing.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen.
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