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Sunday, April 22, 2007

An uncertain presidential election in France

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera: San Juan, Puerto Rico

French voters go to the polls this Sunday to take part in a presidential election with a total of twelve candidates on the ballot, spanning the entire political spectrum from far right to far left. However, should no candidate attain an absolute majority of valid votes, a runoff election will be held on May 6 among the top two candidates on the first round of voting. French voters residing abroad also take part in the election, as do France's overseas departments and territories - the remnants of a once-vast colonial empire.

Unlike in most other European countries with elected heads of state, the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic provides for a strong presidency, as envisaged by its founder, General Charles de Gaulle, who was brought back from political retirement in 1958, when France appeared to be on the verge of civil war over the Algeria crisis. At his behest, French voters approved a new constitution that replaced the parliamentary system of government that had existed in France under the Third Republic (1875-1940) and the Fourth (1946-58) with a hybrid system that retained some parliamentary features, but nonetheless reflected de Gaulle's views of how France should be governed.

Although the 1958 constitution retained the office of prime minister, its role in governmental affairs is clearly subordinate to the presidency - except when the party or parties supporting the president become a minority in the National Assembly (the lower house of the French legislature). In such cases, it has become customary for the head of state to "cohabit" with a prime minister from the majority opposition parties, in essence allowing the system to revert a parliamentary form of government. Nonetheless, in the three periods of "cohabitation" under the Fifth Republic (in 1986-88, 1993-95, and 1997-2002), the president continued to exercise a prominent role in certain policy areas, most notably foreign affairs.

Originally, the president was indirectly chosen by an electoral college of about 80,000 notables for a term of seven years (cut down to five after a 2000 referendum), and in 1958 de Gaulle himself was elected by this procedure as the first president of the Fifth Republic. However, in 1962 de Gaulle, who by then had successfully extricated France out of Algeria, called a referendum on his proposal to have the president elected by popular voting. Both the measure itself and the way in which it was advanced were highly controversial. At the time, France had only had a single presidential election by popular voting, in 1848, and the winner of that poll - Louis-Napoléon (the nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte) - went on to destroy the incipient Second Republic and proclaim himself Emperor Napoleon III. Moreover, de Gaulle bypassed the legislature by calling the referendum under the terms of Article 11 of the Constitution (which allows the President of the Republic to submit to a referendum any government bill which deals with the organization of the public authorities), rather than Article 89 (which specifically provides for amendments to the Constitution, requiring parliamentary approval for these). Nonetheless, French voters approved the measure by a decisive margin, and since 1965 presidential elections have been held under the two-round or runoff system of voting.

It was widely expected that General de Gaulle would be easily re-elected in 1965, but he faced an unexpectedly strong challenge from leftist leader François Mitterrand, who forced de Gaulle into a runoff election. De Gaulle won in the second round with a clear majority, but his margin of victory was not particularly impressive, considering his political stature. Since then, the French electorate has continued to deliver surprise outcomes on a frequent basis, the most shocking of all in the 2002 presidential election, when right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front unexpectedly outpolled Socialist Party candidate (and then-Prime Minister) Lionel Jospin for second place in the first round of voting, and in the process contradicted every opinion poll, which had Le Pen in third place (nonetheless, incumbent President Jacques Chirac - who topped the poll in the first round - crushed Le Pen in the runoff; Presidential Elections in France has a comprehensive review of the French electoral system and party politics under the Fifth Republic).

So far, no presidential candidate has ever secured an absolute majority of votes in the first round of voting, in which each party has usually promoted its own candidate. Minor-party candidates have been able to garner support regardless of their electoral chances, since voters are not as pressured into supporting candidates from other parties with better electoral prospects as would be the case under a single-round plurality system: French presidential elections are not likely to be decided until the second round, and the runoff election has usually been a contest between a right-of-center candidate opposed by a leftist hopeful; the sole exceptions to this norm were in 1969 and 2002. In the latter case, a proliferation of left-wing candidates, which siphoned votes from Socialist candidate Jospin, contributed to his exclusion from the runoff vote. Consequently, some minor parties usually allied with the Socialists chose not to field their own presidential candidates in 2007, opting instead to support the Socialist Party nominee.

Nonetheless, the system has encouraged a tendency towards differentiation among the various political groups (thus reinforcing the country's multi-party system), since these can test their electoral strength by themselves in the first round of voting, but this tendency has been checked by the necessity to build alliances in order to reach and win the runoff election. At the same time, it should be noted that political parties in France tend to be more fluid than their counterparts in other Western European countries, particularly - but by no means exclusively - on the right and center (as illustrated by their frequent name changes and realignments); moreover, personalities often play a more important role in the political process than the parties themselves. Since 1965, France has chosen right-of-center presidents in all but two elections, but the country's only socialist president - François Mitterrand, who served two terms in office from 1981 to 1995 - remains the Fifth Republic's longest-serving head of state.

At the time of writing, it's all but certain there will be a second round of voting on May 6, but it's not entirely clear which two candidates will make it to the runoff. Of the dozen men and women in the race, only four appear to have a realistic chance of making it to the runoff vote: former Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy of the ruling, conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), who has been endorsed by outgoing President (and longtime rival) Jacques Chirac; Poitou-Charentes regional president Ségolène Royal of the left-wing Socialist Party (PS), who is also the first major-party female presidential candidate in the history of France; François Bayrou, leader of the centrist Union for French Democracy (UDF); and Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder and leader of the far-right National Front (FN). Opinion polls have consistently placed Sarkozy and Royal in first and second place, with Bayrou third, sometimes within striking distance of Royal (and at times Sarkozy as well), and Le Pen further behind. Interestingly, the polls indicate that if Bayrou were to make it to the runoff election, he would easily defeat any of the other three major contenders.

In fact, Bayrou's unexpectedly strong showing on the polls (some of which have him closely behind Royal) has been a considerable source of anxiety to some Socialist leaders, who fear a repeat of the 2002 electoral disaster, when the party found itself shut out of the runoff vote; however, the Socialist Party's old guard does not appear to be too bothered concerning a poor showing by Royal, since she prevailed over them to secure the party's presidential nomination, much to their displeasure.

Royal's prospects may be also be affected by four far-left candidates on the race - a Communist and three Trotskyists - as well as by Green and altermondialisme (anti-globalization) candidates: none is expected to reach the runoff election, but they could cost Royal the votes needed to get to the second round.

On the right, Sarkozy - who has remained consistently ahead in opinion polls (although by sometimes precarious margins) - seems to be in a safer position than Royal to make it to the runoff, but a strong showing by either Bayrou or Le Pen (or both) could upset all calculations. However, while Sarkozy's exclusion from the second round may be less likely to happen than Royal's, he could conceivably fail to top the poll in the first round, which would be politically embarrassing but would not necessarily inflict irreparable damage to his campaign: Valéry Giscard d'Estaing (in 1974), Mitterrand (in 1981) and Chirac (in 1995) all overcame second-place finishes on the first round of voting and ultimately prevailed in the runoff election.

In all, the race remains difficult to predict: there has been a large number of undecided voters late into the race (as much as a third of the electorate two days before the election), which combined with the still-recent memory of the 2002 opinion polls fiasco has given an air of uncertainty to the 2007 presidential election.


On Wednesday, April 25, 2007, the French Constitutional Council announced final results of the 2007 presidential election's first round of voting were as follows:

Nicolas Sarkozy - 11,448,663 votes (31.2%)
Ségolène Royal - 9,500,112 votes (25.9%)
François Bayrou - 6,820,119 votes (18.6%)
Jean-Marie Le Pen - 3,834,530 votes (10.4%)
Olivier Besancenot - 1,498,581 votes (4.1%)
Philippe de Villiers - 818,407 votes (2.2%)
Marie-George Buffet - 707,268 votes (1.9%)
Dominique Voynet - 576,666 votes (1.6%)
Arlette Laguiller - 487,857 votes (1.3%)
José Bové - 483,008 votes (1.3%)
Frédéric Nihous - 420,645 votes (1.1%)
Gérard Schivardi - 123,540 votes (0.3%)

Voter turnout in the election stood at 83.8% - the highest figure in twenty-six years. Since no candidate won an absolute majority of votes, a runoff election will be held on May 6 between Sarkozy and Royal.

Sarkozy's share of the vote was the largest polled by a center-right (and for that matter Gaullist) candidate in the past quarter-century, but at the same time, Royal's percentage was also the highest won by a Socialist candidate in the past twenty-six years, matching François Mitterrand's in 1981. More importantly, she exorcised the ghost of 2002 and made it to the runoff election - a goal which at one point had appeared somewhat uncertain.

Although Bayrou failed to make it to the runoff - a possibility hinted by some opinion polls earlier in the race - he nonetheless tripled his vote in 2002, when the UDF was largely sidelined by the emerging UMP. In the long run, Bayrou's strong showing may frustrate the UMP's plans of bringing together all of the country's center-right forces under a single banner.

Meanwhile, Le Pen's steady electoral advance finally came to a crashing halt: not only did he fail to improve upon his result in the preceding election (as he had in the last two presidential votes), but he had his worst presidential showing since the National Front became a major political force in France in the mid-1980s.

On the other end of the political spectrum, all but one of the candidates to the left of Royal fared badly (the notable exception being Olivier Besancenot, who practically matched his result in the last election); in particular, the once-powerful Communist Party continues to dwindle into electoral irrelevance. The "left of the left" appears to have suffered from tactical voting in favor of Royal, as many left-wing voters were anxious to avoid a repeat of the events in 2002, when a fragmented leftist vote led to the Socialists' exclusion from the second round.

In sum, the Ségo-Sarko showdown, once much anticipated but later thrown into doubt, has become a reality after all. France will return to the polls in less than two weeks, and opinion polls - which correctly predicted the outcome of the first round this year - already have Sarkozy leading Royal in the runoff vote.

Sarko-Ségo, or the 2007 French presidential runoff race has further coverage of the second round of voting.