The French president enjoys substantial powers, with direct constitutional rights with respect to foreign policy and control of the military, and extensive nomination rights across most State bodies. He (there has been no 'she' to date) is elected for 5 years and can choose the government, and call early parliamentary elections, but the government needs to be supported by parliament in order to govern. Parliamentary elections currently take place just after the presidential one, and the president elect usually gets a supportive parliament, but this is by no means certain - there have been several instances of "cohabitation" when the president is from one camp and the government from the other, the most recent in 1997-2002 when Chirac, a right winger, was president but government was run by the socialists under Lionel Jospin. So the parliamentary election in June which follows the presidential one in May will be almost as important, politically speaking.
Voting for the president takes place in two rounds, with the top two in the first round squaring off in the second round (unless one gets 50% right away, which almost never happens). In order to be a candidate, you need to collect 500 signatures from "grands électeurs" - mainly local elected officials such as mayors (of which there are more than 36,000 in France), which avoids fantasy candidates but allows highly motivated individuals with a bit of political support or organization to give it a try, so there typically are 10-15 candidates at the election. Voting is run by the civil service under uniform rules across France, and anybody can be present to supervise voting and counting - they typically ask for volunteers during the day to help out counting at your local voting booth, and the major political parties usually dispatch a few people at each booth in any case. All citizens are semi-automatically put on their town's voting list at 18, and you need to register again if you move cities, a fairly simple process. There is no GOTV in France (in fact it is illegal).
The main candidates are as follows:
- Nicolas Sarkozy
The incumbent president, representing the right, has not announced he will stand again, but is fully expected to do so within a few weeks. He is highly unpopular today, as a lot of people are disappointed with his broken promises and his "bling-bling" style. The early months, when he cavorted with billionaires on their yachts, cut their taxes openly and courted top model Carla Bruni in public, have set the image of a president of the rich for the rich (which he is). His energy is now seen as agitation, and his permanent campaign style now grates, as more people see through the empty gestures. However, he is a strong campaigner, and will benefit again, like last time round, from a friendly media environment, as large swathes of it are owned by personal friends - the main TV channel, TF1, which is still watched by 30%+ of people, is owned by construction magnate Martin Bouygues, while a lot of the regional and national press is owned by Lagardère Group, controlled by Arnaud Lagardère, and both are heavily, if usually stealthily, biased in his favor. TF1 regularly promotes Sarkozy's law and order themes, by ramping up fear about crime and showing him taking decisions (he was minister of the interior for almost 5 years before becoming president, so has been in charge of police matters for 10 years, and he has changed criminal law more times in the past few years than ever before). He is supported by the main party of the right, the UMP, built for him and by him, but which is increasingly wary of him (a lot of the MPs worry about their own election a few weeks after the presidential one). He will be running on the theme of "experience" and the "savior of Europe" and will try to paint the opposition socialists as irresponsible tax-and-spenders, even though, of course, Europe is by no means saved today and he was responsible for the biggest deficits in a long while during his presidency, and he will likely get France to be downgraded by the rating agencies in the near term. Well, you get the drift, he's right-winger. He is polling between 20 and 30% in the polls for the first round.
- François Hollande
François Hollande is the socialist candidate. He was selected in the course of the socialist primaries, which I covered here, the first of their kind, which saw 4 million people participate to select their preferred candidate amongst a decently varied field of 5. He was the socialist party chairman for almost 10 years, and had been campaigning for a number of months already when, of course, he got a lucky break last year as the socialist favorite, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, destroyed his chances with his New-York Sofitel adventure. Hollande is seen as a moderate socialist and a serious political fighter - indeed, his current elected roles include being the boss of the département (a basic French administrative unit - there are about a hundred in France) of Corrèze, in central France, which used to be Chirac's stronghold, and where he won fair and square despite the rural nature of the area and its rightwing favorite son. The French socialists are a party of government, so they are relatively pragmatic, but they are probably still to the left of many other socialist parties in Europe, not to mention the Democrats. Hollande has made explicit statements that he did not support the proposed treaty changes pushed by Sarkozy and Merkel at the most recent European summit, because they wrongly focus on austerity and not on jobs, so that could bring a new dynamic in Europe as well as at home. He is polling around 30% of the votes and would win a confrontation with Sarkozy 60-40 according to recent polls, but such a commanding lead is unlikely to happen on election day.
- Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen is the candidate of the far right National Front (FN). She is the daughter of previous FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who infamously reached the second round of the 2002 presidential election. She has tried to soften the racist and extremist tone of her father, and go for a more populist voice, including on the economy, where her father used to be very pro-free markets and deregulation, and where she is pushing for protectionism, support for the lower classes, clearly targeting the blue collar vote. The anti-immigration and pro-law and order tone remains, but in a less provocative fashion (and it's been largely captured by a good chunk of the "traditional" right, as Sarkozy has been pushing increasingly anti-immigrant policies over the years). She says "vote for the original" and tends to target Sarkozy more than the left these days, calling him an inconsistent flake. She tends to attract quite a big portion of the despair vote, i.e. people who no longer believe that the system can help them and do not see enough of a difference between left and right. She has been polling above 15% and sometimes above 20%, occasionally being head to head with Sarkozy, and she is pushing hard to be the "real" candidate of the right in this election. FN voters are notoriously hard to poll, so her score is really unknown but it is highly likely that she will be in the top 3.
- Eva Joly
Eva Joly is the Norwegian-born candidate of the Green party. She was formerly an investigative judge, famous for putting a number of VIPs in jail in various corruption cases, and she was selected by the Greens, to almost everybody's surprise, to be their candidate in a closed primary (i.e. open only to party members, whereas the socialist one was open to all comers) against a famous bobo TV personality, Nicolas Hulot. The Greens are formally allied with the Socialists, and have reached an agreement for the parliamentary elections which basically guarantees that they will get a group in the next parliament (the Socialists will not present candidates against them in an agreed number of voting districts), so this election is the main way for them to count their support (and it will influence things like the number of ministers they get in a joint government of the left and so forth). Eva Joly is seen as something of a political amateur, with several gaffes to her "credit" but people also tend to see that as refreshing, so it's not obviously counting against her. However, she is not favorable to the early alliance with the Socialists and that has created some internal tensions in the party. Money is at stake - French parties get most of their money from government coffers, under formulas linked to how many votes they get - and how many elected officials they get - so a good chunk of the party was more preoccupied with the deal with the socialists, which gives them access to funds, than by the purity of the campaign. A big topic in the bilateral deal was the future place of nuclear energy in France, which the Greens want to bring down to zero - François Hollande has agreed to cut nuclear's share of power production from the current 80%+ to 50% in 2025, a significant move already but one deemed too timid by many Greens. Eva Joly's share of the vote is quite uncertain (Greens have ranged from 3% to 15% in recent elections) but probably in the 5-10% range.
- François Bayrou
The last "big" candidate is François Bayrou, a centrist. He came a strong third in the 2007 election, with close to 19% of the vote, and hopes to replicate this this year, presenting himself as a reasonable alternative between the right and the left. However, he has alienated a lot of friends and does not have a lot of organized support this time round, so he probably won't get as many votes this time, but quite how many he will get is a big unknown. He currently polls in the high single digits.
- the others
A number of other candidates will be present at the poll, but the final list is not known. Jean-Luc Mélenchon will represent the Communist Party and a part of the left-of the socialists left assembled in the Left Front (Front de Gauche), and can be expected to get around 5% of the vote. The hard left (actual trotskysts and assorted groups openly fighting for revolution) will likely be represented by one or two candidates which should get around 5% together. The communists have a few remaining local strongholds and traditionally deal with the socialists and still manage to keep a group of 15 or so MPs in parliament, so they are part of the regular political debate in France; the trotskysts are less visible, but often quite active in unions and demonstrations and public actions. Another candidate of the left may be Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a sovereignist of the left (i.e. a protectionist, atheist left with a strong moral role for government) has announced his candidacy but may withdraw (he got 5% in 2002 and is blamed by some for Jospin's poor showing and elimination).
On the right, there will be a number of smaller candidates, including several from the hard, "traditional values" right (pro-family, pro-hunting) and possibly a couple of other centrists. Two have announced their candidacy: Hervé Morin, a former minister of Sarkozy, and Dominique de Villepin, Chirac's former minister of foreign affairs (of the anti-war speech at the UN in March 2003 fame) and prime minister of Chirac. Villepin hates Sarkozy and this is widely seen as a ploy to make him lose a few votes - but he is cynical enough that he may yet trade to drop out in exchange for some unspecified reward (he may want to be prime minister again). Each of these clocks in the 0-3% range.
In terms of the issues, the political debate is dominated by the economic crisis, as unemployment is inching up again towards 10%, the highest in 12 years, and the endless eurozone crisis weakens the economy further. Crime and immigration pop up now and then, typically at the behest of the government, which never loses an opportunity to grandstand, in particular whenever a particularly horrible violent crime happens. Sarkozy has tried to present himself as a great statesman with a lot of international summiteering, saving Europe one day, liberating Libya the next, promoting fancy G20 schemes the other, but this is increasingly seen as endless (and ineffective) noise. His voting base is old (he only got a majority of the over 50s back in 2007, but they are a large, and increasing, share of the voters) and easy to scare, so there is a lot of fear mongering and corresponding self-promotion as the sole protector of the French against all sorts of dangers. Conversely, Hollande, who got a nice boost from the highly successful way the socialist primaries took place (massive turnout, lots of enthusiastic crowds, a clean and compelling victory for him against Martine Aubry, the current party boss and slightly more to the left of the party), needs to decide how and when to campaign, and what to say and not say in the face of a severe crisis which may not leave him with a lot of room for maneuver should he win (or so the Serious People say, anyway). Promises to come back on the increased age for retirement, or to rehire the teachers shed under Sarkozy have come under heavy criticism as being yet more careless spending, and have been set aside for now. The good news is that he is a fighter, as noted above, and today's text, linked to at the top of this article, includes a violent critique of Sarkozy's broken promises, unpresidential behavior and unfair policies.
To be continued…