French presidential elections: a ‘frivolous’ island?

As some of you might know today is the first round of the French presidential elections. About 43.2 million voters (including 1 million people living abroad) are going to the polls to choose between a generally disliked president, a Socialist candidate who became popular by default, a far-right candidate who’s trying hard to normalize her father’s party and retain a political ground often invaded by the current president mentioned above, a hard-core Gaullist, sovereignty advocate (i.e. anti-European), a centre-right candidate from the deep South who pretends to be neither right or left, a ‘Norwegian post-menopausal’[1] judge, 3 communist and/or Troskyist revolutionaries (including Mr Jean-Luc Mélenchon whose survey ratings average 14-16% of the votes), and last but not least a conspiracy theorist who advocates for the building of a thermonuclear tunnel from the Earth to the moon and Mars. (Meet the candidates here or here.)

During the past 4 weeks of campaigning a few international figures made it into the French political arena, including Angela Merkel who expressed her strong support to Nicolas Sarkozy, the German SPD who favours François Hollande, or Barrack Obama who strongly believes in Sarkozy’s victory (see the video here). Beyond these traditional vote-catching efforts to show the candidates’ international calibre[2], world politics were conspicuously absent from the debates, as if France were an island disconnected from the outside world, when so many pressing issues will have to be dealt with on an international level:

  • The international, or at least European, dimension of the economic crisis lent itself to a rather sterile debate between advocates of a passé protectionism and supporters of an adaptation to globalization, as though the economic challenge awaiting our next government will merely be dealt with on internal issues such as VAT and the tax system, with no connection to the wider context.
  • The European Union in dire need of reform to be able to address the debt deficit crisis is being attacked on all fronts and accused of being the cause of so many French difficulties. Nicolas Sarkozy, who 5 years ago wanted to put the Lisbon Treaty back on track, now uses the EU as a scapegoat, when François Hollande argues that he will renegotiate the latest European agreements to give them a greater social dimension, which will likely isolate France from its European partners.
  • The current state of affairs in Northern Africa, the armed conflict in Sahel, the rising tensions between Israel and Iran, the civil war in Syria, none of these themes made it to the general debate, although they will pose challenges that the next French government will have to face.

The results of the first round will be announced tonight (French time). Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande will very likely be the two frontrunners. With the second stage of the campaign starting tomorrow, we may hope that global politics will finally be debated and that some thought will be given to the position of France in Europe and the world today.


[1] In her own words.

[2] For a detailed analysis of the role of International Relations in presidential elections campaign under the 5th Republic, please see: Isabelle Lebreton-Falézan, Dimensions internationales des campagnes présidentielles sous la Vème République, available at:


3 comments on “French presidential elections: a ‘frivolous’ island?

  1. clintonwatson says:

    The recent terrorist-style shootings in Toulouse and the arguably related theme of the Islamisation of France are influencing the campaigns and vote. As the tragedy in Toulouse unfolded, Sarkozy campaigned as taking a tough stance on security and terrorism. This seemed to benefit the right. I remember Eva Joly’s comments last July about scrapping the Bastille Day military parades in favour of an all-citizen parade making waves and for a time she was very much at the centre of debate. The Norwegian was on the receiving end of quite a few xenophobic comments – the National Front had a field day. But since Toulouse Joly has really dropped out of favour.

    Contrary to NZ, I think French debate is much richer on international matters. Libya and Syria were heavily debated in France and the Arab Spring covered the newspapers for months. I agree that Iran and Israel hasn’t received much airtime, but the Iran nuclear saga has been very thoroughly covered by the French press, but, yes, it hasn’t figured in the presidential run. The European debt crisis is so mammoth that any government is going to have their work cut out for them. Merkel will definitely be hoping for a Sarkozy win so the love couple (as they’ve been dubbed) can continue their relationship…

    But what I really love about French elections is seeing how the right of the country votes for the right and the left votes for the left. Of course, there are exceptions, but that is the general trend. Is it a bit of realism on the part of the French? Those closest to the land borders in the east which have no geographic protection prefer a government with a more realist view of defence and threats. Whereas those facing the open waters of the Atlantic, or benefiting from the natural defence of the Pyrenees, are more liberal and optimistic about international cooperation. So I know where I’ll be living if I return to France;)

    • sengad says:

      There is no doubt that the shootings in Toulouse turned the campaign upside down and, as you state, the Merah case lead to renewed stigmatisation of immigration (in the wake of the infamous Hallal debate) and probably explains the high result of the Front National and why Sarkozy didn’t do too bad in the end… But once again, this is, I believe, the sign of a society that closes itself up to international issues.

      I agree with you, international matters tend to get a higher coverage in the French media than in New Zealand. The presidential elections should reflect that, all the more since the president is head of state and the one who will shape the government’s foreign policy. Nothing has been said about foreign policy and the potential differences between Hollande-led government and a Sarkozy administration in that regard. Some commentators argue that there will be no difference at all because there can’t be any.

      If you’re interested in French electoral geography you should read René Rémond’s and André Siegfried’s works on the electroal history. The links between religion, social background, even geology, etc. are quite interesting.

      • clintonwatson says:

        Thanks for the tip on René Rémond and André Siegfried. I might read that for pleasure next year when I’ve got some free time!

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