19 April 2012

David P. Hamilton : French Elections: Francois Hollande and the Socialists

Presidential frontrunner Francois Hollande of the French Socialist Party. Image from Jegoun.net.

The French presidential election:
Francois Hollande offers
an opportunity for the Left
The simple explanation of Sarkozy’s failure is that the majority of the French electorate do not like the man personally and disapprove of his policies.
By David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog / April 19, 2012
David Hamilton and Philip Russell will discuss the upcoming presidential elections in France and Mexico on Rag Radio with Thorne Dreyer on KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin on Friday, April 20, 2012, from 2-3 p.m. (CDT). The show will be streamed live here.
Voting in this year’s French presidential election begins on April 22 and will provide an important opportunity for the Left. In the first round, there will be candidates representing 10 political parties, half of them leftist, including the Socialist, Left Unity, Green, New Anti-capitalist, and Worker’s Struggle parties.

This is fewer than in 2007 when there were 12 parties and in 2002 when there were 16. If no one wins a clear majority in the first round, an event that has never come close to happening previously, the two leading candidates advance to a run off on May 6.

The French electoral system

There are major differences between the U.S. and French procedures for electing a president.

In stark contrast to the U.S., corporate financing of political campaigns in France is strictly illegal. Individual contributions are limited to about $6,000 and must be thoroughly documented if over 150 euros ($200). This is not to say that political corruption does not exist. Envelopes full of cash are doubtless passed under the table.

Sarkozy is currently being investigated, accused of accepting millions during his 2007 campaign from Colonel Gaddafi of Libya and Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the L'Oreal cosmetics fortune and the richest woman in France.

High level officials have been prosecuted for political corruption, including recent ex-president Jacques Chirac who was found guilty, but given a suspended sentence. Sarkozy will very likely be prosecuted when he leaves office and looses his immunity.

In the US, thanks to the Supreme Court's "Citizens United" decision, such political bribery is considered free speech. In France there is an official campaign period of about one month. During this period all candidates are given free and equal media time, 43 minutes each divided into 18 segments of 90 seconds to 3½ minutes during which they may state their case.

They are not allowed to solicit funds or disparage their opponents. No other mass media political advertising, such as inundates the U.S., is permissible. Campaigns thus cost a very small fraction of what they cost in the U.S.

The amount that campaigns can spend is also strictly limited, to only about 20 million euros ($28 million) for each of the two candidates that reach the run off. That's about as much as Mitt Romney spent in the Florida Republican primary.

The U.S. presidential election of 2012 is predicted to cost the campaigns $3-4 billion, several hundred times more than the French campaign. And the French government reimburses about half of all campaign costs.

The voting is nationwide, not filtered through some intermediary devise such as the Electoral College that distorts the outcome and negates to meaninglessness nearly half the votes cast. The voting always takes place on a Sunday to maximize the turnout, whereas in the U.S. elections are intentionally held on a workday so as to minimize worker participation.

As a result, while the turnout in the most recent French presidential election in 2007 was considered low at 84%, the 70% who voted in the U.S. presidential election in 2008 was considered high. Ballots in France are on paper and counted by hand. As a result of these features of its electoral system and its significantly greater income equality, France's is a far more democratic country than the U.S.

The French electorate is independent, traditionally polarized, and not centrist. The current most centrist candidate, Francois Bayrou, is running a distant fifth and fading into irrelevance. The most graphic recent example of French polarization was the 2005 vote on the constitution of the European Union which failed by a wide margin despite being strongly favored by all French political parties except the far left and far right.

Many, such as Karl Rove, think there is really no center in U.S. politics either, but this phenomenon is particularly evident in France and has been for centuries, during which time they have on several occasions killed each other mercilously.

The horse race

It is certain that no one will have a majority in the first round and the runoff will be between the incumbent president, Nicolas Sarkozy representing the UMP (Union pour un Mouvemente Populaire) and Francois Hollande representing the Socialist Party.

Third place is now up for grabs. Early in the race, the far right wing National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen, was solidly in third but trailing the top two candidates by more than 10%. She has since been overtaken by the charismatic and fast rising leftist leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, representing Left Unity, a coalition to the left of the Socialists, including the Communist Party and other leftist groups.

Mélenchon has made the biggest move of any candidate in the race, moving from an initial 5% to 15% in the most recent polls, while Le Pen dropped from about 15% to 12%. Polls show Mélenchon rising fastest, with Sarkozy rising more slowly, Hollande and Le Pen dropping. Hollande is losing votes to Mélenchon. Le Pen is losing votes to Sarkozy.

Regardless of these trends, the polls have consistently shown for months that Hollande and Sarkozy will both easily make the runoff and Hollande will win that by a wide margin. Despite Sarkozy's recent gains, every poll for months has shown him losing badly in the second round to Hollande, even if he is able to win the first round. No poll has shown Hollande's lead at less than 6% in the runoff, outside the margin of error.

Sarkozy's defeat will make him only the second French president to not be reelected since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958. The crucial polls show Sarkozy only getting a minority of the vote of the far-right National Front candidate, Le Pen, in the second round while Mélenchon's voters overwhelmingly switch to Hollande.

Sarkozy is running to the right in an effort to enhance his standing among Le Pen voters for the second round. But polls continue to show that many Le Pen supporters are unwilling to switch to Sarkozy and many of her ex-leftist supporters (the French analogy to the blue-collar Reagan Democrat) will switch to Hollande.

The simple explanation of Sarkozy’s failure is that the majority of the French electorate do not like the man personally and disapprove of his policies. It is hard to say which is more important. His anti-immigrant measures, austerity advocacy, and militarism in Libya do not represent the political thinking of the majority of the French, where 43% of respondents to a recent poll agreed with the proposition that "capitalism is fundamentally flawed."

Given that Sarkozy's father was an immigrant, his anti-immigrant positions seem exemplary of a particularly repellant form of political opportunism.

But in image conscious France, his personality and stature may be his biggest liabilities. He’s hyperactive, aggressive, ostentatious, and short. Take away Sarkozy's platform shoes and de Gaulle would have been nearly a foot taller.

Napoleon could get away with short, but not Sarkozy. He’s just not the distinguished presidential figure most French want to represent them to the world. Sarkozy is also widely thought to be corrupt, as was his mentor, ex-president Chirac, who now hates him too.

The recent shootings in Toulouse turned the campaign temporarily to the issue of security, considered a strong suit for Sarkozy, but it didn't help his standing noticeably in subsequent polls. He has flailed fruitlessly trying to find an issue that would resurrect him as his approval ratings sank into the 20's. Meanwhile French unemployment has crept up to 10% and economic growth has stalled despite Sarkozy's promises of prosperity.

With only two weeks to go, Sarkozy's approval ratings have climbed to 40%, but 58% disapprove of him and 57% approve of Hollande. Those numbers have been remarkably static and spell Sarkozy’s political doom.

Before the first round, expect Sarkozy to become ever more desperate in his attempts to attract Islamophobic support from the right. He has recently denied entry into France of Muslim clerics he labels as "extremists," has ordered the arrest and deportation of several individuals accused of being Muslim terrorist sympathizers, and said that people who log on to jihadist websites should be arrested.

Sarkozy is running a campaign that ignores the center while trying to build and energize a right-wing base. That strategy only works in a low turnout setting, not with 80% or better participation.

What a Hollande victory means

What is the meaning of Francois Hollande being the next president of France? Many Americans will probably say "not much," since they don’t consider France itself important. That view is ill-informed and often masks envy.

France is the world’s ninth largest economy, but along with Germany, it is the nucleus of the European Union, the world’s largest economy. France is also one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council with a veto and an independent nuclear power. It is and has been for centuries a political and cultural model for others. By having hosted four since the original in 1789, Paris is the cradle of democratic revolutions that have inspired millions around the globe.

Today France has arguably the most sophisticated social welfare system in the world. It is perpetually the world’s number one tourist destination despite the alleged grumpiness of its citizens. Its cuisine is a UNESCO World Heritage cultural phenomenon and it produces the world's most sought after wines by a very wide margin. Its art is universally revered. It probably provides the world's most commonly used advertising motif to symbolize chic and fashionable.

In essence, France matters a lot more than even its size and wealth might indicate. The last time a Socialist was newly-elected president of France, it was 1981 and Francois Mitterrand was coming into office in coalition with the Communists and with a long list of nationalizations and other aggressive socialist initiatives.

Francois Hollande will have relatively little of that. He's running as a moderate and that is what the French leftist intelligencia consider him. However, were he running as a Democrat in the U.S., Labour Party in the UK, or Social Democrat in Germany, his platform would be considered quite leftist indeed.

It goes without saying that he promises very significant differences from Sarkozy. These include France’s position on the European debt crisis, its willingness to cooperate with U.S. militarism, and a range of French domestic issues, particularly in regards to the tax structure. The take-off point to determine what Francois Hollande offers comes from a campaign document containing his “60 pledges."

These include:
  1. The renegotiation of EU financial arrangements designed to confront the “debt crisis” by including more emphasis on growth relative to austerity.
  2. Re-hiring 60,000 teachers.
  3. Subsidizing 150,000 jobs for youth.
  4. Increasing the number of public sector jobs.
  5. Raising the current top marginal income tax rate from 41% to 45% and creating a new bracket that taxes income over a million euros a year at 75%.
  6. Cutting the minimum age to receive a pension back from 62 years to 60 and a full pension from 67 back to 65.
  7. Capping executive compensation.
  8. Ending tax havens and cutting out 29 billion euros in tax breaks for the wealthy.
  9. Instituting a financial transactions tax.
  10. Taxing investment income at the same rate as wages and salaries.
  11. Creating a public European credit-rating agency.
  12. Forcing banks to separate their retail banking from their investment operations.
  13. Using revenues from the new taxes on the rich to cut the budget deficit to 3% in 2013 and to balance the budget by the end of his first term.
  14. Legalizing gay marriage and adoptions.
  15. Achieving international recognition for the Palestinian state.
  16. Cutting France’s current high use of nuclear energy by replacing it with sustainable nonpolluting energy.
  17. Bringing home all French troops from Afghanistan early -- by the end of 2012.
  18. Cutting the salary of the French president by 30%.
For an American presidential candidate, this platform would be radical beyond our wildest dreams. Of course, much of it may be dismissed as campaign rhetoric and there is little doubt that eventually many on the left will be disappointed in Hollande. But much of his program could be accomplished without greater public sector expenditures and his new taxes on the wealthy are popular.

Much depends on whether the Socialist Party and its left allies are able to win enough seats in the National Assembly elections to be held in June in order to avoid divided government. Sarkozy’s UMP now holds 317 of the 577 seats. This gives Hollande two months after winning the presidency to exploit his momentum in order to help the Socialist Party in the National Assembly elections.

A clear Socialist Party majority is unlikely. Although recent regional elections have been trending left, the Socialists would need to win 85 additional seats to gain a majority. A left coalition majority, however, is more within reach. There are currently 25 members to the left of the Socialists in the National Assembly. That number would need to grow along with the Socialists.

Such a left coalition will be necessary in order for Hollande to be able to name a Socialist as prime minister and form a unified government with control of both the executive and legislature. That coalition would necessarily include parties to the left of the Socialists, the forces now being mobilized by the candidacy of Jean-Luc Mélenchon of Left Unity. Having them as coalition partners pushes Hollande's positions further to the left.

The most obvious and important change a Hollande presidency might bring would be in negotiations within the EU concerning its "debt crisis." There is currently a consensus among the right-wing-led governments of Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and the UK that cuts in government spending and austerity measures imposed on social services are the sole acceptable means of government debt reduction. As a leftist, Hollande crashes that party with a different perspective that supports greater government expenditures, government sponsored growth and higher taxes on capital and the rich.

How that debate will evolve is the most important issue in Europe. Within the EU, will Hollande demand a new approach that gives greater emphasis to government sponsored growth or will he settle for rhetorical flourishes?

In foreign policy insofar as it relates to affairs outside Europe, Hollande is certain to take France in a new direction. With the disintegration of Libya into warring tribes, the decimation of women's rights there in the wake of the Sarkozy-led invasion, and the great unpopularity of French involvement with NATO in Afghanistan, one can be confident that French cooperation with U.S./NATO military adventures will be much harder to achieve with Hollande.

This attitude has already been reflected in an adamant statement, given by the man said to be Hollande's future Minister of Defense, that France pulling its 3,600 soldiers out of Afghanistan this year was non-negotiable. Hollande is also complaining about the French role in the NATO command structure and has floated a concept of "European defense" with reduced reliance on the US.

In addition, his support for Palestinian statehood is a reversal of French policy that will run head-on into U.S. opposition in the UN Security Council. Expect increasing French opposition to Israeli Likud government actions, given the widespread hostility toward Likud and Zionism among the staunchly secular and pro-Palestinian French left.

Domestically, Hollande will primarily be concerned with raising taxes on capital in order to continue funding some of the world's best social services. Hollande has explicitly said that "my biggest enemy is finance capital" and "I don't like the rich."

His support for a cap on executive compensation, a financial transactions tax, taxing capital gains like wages and higher marginal tax brackets at the top signals a radically different approach to solving government debt issues from that advocated by Sarkozy and currently favored by Europe's conservative leaders.

He will also put greater emphasis on the integration of immigrants into French society in contrast to Sarkozy's penchant for instigating Islamophobia and Roma roundups. And Hollande's promised enactment of gay marriage and adoption would be a huge victory for gay rights worldwide.

If Hollande is successful as France's next president, he will be offering Europe and the rest of the world a social democratic model that will have great appeal. Such a model would stand in sharp contrast to that provided by the U.S.

Hence, the French presidential election may have more important global implications than the one in the U.S. in November, which will again offer two candidates in relatively closer agreement on basic policy issues than the candidates in France, a phenomenon to be expected given the heavy corporate influence on both major U.S. political parties.

[Unabashed Francophile David P. Hamilton, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin in history and government, spends part of each year in France and writes about France and politics (and French politics) for The Rag Blog. Read more articles by David P. Hamilton on The Rag Blog.]

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