|Less than three months ahead of the 2012 elections, the PS appears better placed than at any other time under the Fifth Republic to win both presidency and a majority in the Assemblée nationale. Even compared with 1981, the victory of Hollande, and subsequent legislative domination to form a partner government, seem more assured.|
The socialist candidate currently enjoys a remarkable level of popular support and even seems to be gaining momentum after Sarkozy’s interview on French television last Sunday. A poll of polls currently gives Hollande over 30 per cent of the first-round vote, compared with less than 25 per cent for the incumbent President and UMP candidate. In a second-round run-off, the margin of victory for Hollande reaches double figures.
Voting intention polls as of 1st February 2012 (averaged polls, all institutes)
Moreover, because of France’s five-year presidential mandate (quinquennat), and the coincidence of the presidential and legislative races, victory for Hollande in the presidentials is expected to guarantee Socialist success in the legislatives. Let us recall that a similar ‘confirmatory’ effect was discernible in the victory by the UMP in both the 2002 and 2007 elections, where the presidential party achieved a substantial majority in the Assembly.
For the Socialists and Hollande, hope can be drawn too from the dominance of the party on the Left. Other parties appear in no position to challenge Socialist hegemony. Despite choice policy opportunities, Joly has proved unable to date to engage the electorate. Similarly, in the absence of Olivier Besancenot and Arlette Laguiller, the Extreme Left is fragmented and its inexperienced, low-popularity candidates almost invisible. As for recurrent presidential hopeful Jean-Pierre Chevènement, he has just announced his dropping out of the presidential race and should, in all probability, endorse Hollande in much the same way as he supported Royal’s candidacy in 2007.
Radical left solutions are now represented most successfully by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Front de Gauche. His presidential campaign’s slogan Place au Peuple betrays an avowedly populist approach to radical Left positions close to Germany’s democratic socialist Die Linke. A realist approach to Keynesian economics combined with Mélenchon’s energetic but affable personal style, currently garners an average 8 per cent of first-round votes.
The principal threats that face Hollande and the PS are twofold, and come from the right. Despite his numbers currently flat-lining, Bayrou might again be able to capitalise on his longstanding antagonism towards Sarkozy’s policies and political style. Cooperation with Bayrou, mirroring certain sub-national partnerships, has tempted but not converted the Socialists. The leftist ‘first-round’ strategy adopted by Hollande since Le Bourget includes pushing Bayrou back to the centre right while leaving the door open to re-establishing links with the MODEM candidate between the two rounds. Critical of Hollande’s program, Bayrou is cultivating his position as a disrupter of the left-right duality, giving no indication of any preference between the two. BVA’s latest poll shows that Bayrou’s first-round voters would switch predominantly to the left, with a 11-point differential (45-34) of his first-round voters allocating their second-round vote to Hollande and Sarkozy. How many already desert Hollande in the first round will be key.
Whilst Le Pen constitutes a greater threat for Sarkozy, in collecting disaffected Right-wing voters, her current polls are of equal concern to the Left for two reasons. The FN candidate seems to be gaining electoral advantage from her populist redistributive economic policies, even shamelessly mimicking the Socialists – most recently, for instance, on a return to retirement at 60. This new strategic appeal by the FN to the ‘spiralling’ middle class hit by the recession threatens to encroach further on socialist territory. Secondly, in the latest IFOP poll, a massive 40 per cent of blue-collar workers intend voting Le Pen. Whatever, second-round intentions for workers indicate only a 55/45 split in favour of Hollande. Those four in ten workers may truly be lost to the Left. Hardly surprising, overall, that Hollande chose specifically to address all those who have been ‘abandoned, stigmatised or relegated’ in his opening campaign meeting in January.
Within the party, three challenges – leadership, party fragmentation and policy renewal – have been manifest since Jospin’s departure in 2002. Hollande has managed to safeguard unity since his nomination. He seems also to have liberated himself from constraints imposed by the adoption of the PS policy platform in June 2011. The unveiling of his 60 engagements pour la France on 26 January confirmed the content of specific proposals, such as the creation of 150,000 youth jobs and 60,000 teaching positions, as well as providing less specific commitments in areas such as health-care reform.
Despite such bright prospects, the presidential battle is yet to be fought and won. Realistic ideological alternatives to Sarkozy’s line of austerity are difficult to position, because the territory of fiscal orthodoxy is already firmly occupied by François Bayrou. Consequently, the Socialist candidate finds himself forced to compete more in terms of presidential credibility, a difficult task as an opposition candidate, and made all the more arduous by a president intent on presiding to the very last second as proof that he is the man for the job. That Sarkozy is ‘enjoying’ record unpopularity, and the Left bloc overall is in fact some 10 per cent behind the actual score of left-wing candidates in the 1981 presidential election, also encourages the notion that Hollande is doing well only because of his opponents’ problems.
And thus victory could be a mixed blessing. In a period of economic instability, rising unemployment and a public sector still in desperate need of reform, a five-year mandate for the Socialist candidate and a supporting government with a largely nascent programme may bring into sharp relief their own incapacity to provide any broadly palatable reforms. Similarly, Hollande has yet to clarify his intentions with regards to European leaders’ efforts to resolve the Eurozone crisis. It is unlikely that unilateral promises to create Eurobonds, renegotiate the late-2011 deal on the Euro, or invite German Chancellor Merkel to consider a new Treaty in 2013 will meet with approval in the European arena. Even after 17 years’ exclusion from the presidency, more immediate electoral victories may not be the route to long-term success.
This is a shorter version of an article published in the January 2012 issue of State of the Left, the bulletin of the Social Democracy Observatory, at Policy Network, a leading thinktank and international political network.