The French Presidential Election

Opinion polling in the French Presidential election has, so far, been fairly accurate. All the polls over the past few months have suggested that the first round would be a very close contest between incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his Socialist Party challenger, Francois Hollande. The margin between the two was often smaller than the margin of error for polling. In the more recent polls Hollande has, more often than not, been in the lead. All polls showed, however, showed a clear gap between these two and the next tier of candidates. This was precisely borne out in the election, with Hollande leading 28.6% to 27.1%. The third placed candidate, Marine Le Pen, took 17.9%, thus Hollande and Sarkozy advance to the run-off, as has always been expected.

If polling for the second round is as accurate, then the result has been known for some time. Hollande has consistently led run-off polls for two years. His best polling result, 64%, was last October, but his rating has been between 53 and 60 percent all this year. There has been a slight tendency for polling to tighten as the election approached, but there were several polls this month which showed him as high as 57%.

Hollande’s consistent lead in voting intentions is surprising when you dig deeper into the polling. Sarkozy is rated by voters as being better for confronting the financial crisis. He is regarded as a stronger leader and people see him as more presidential, yet they still plan to vote for his opponent.

Sarkozy is not ‘presidential’ in the way that France has come to expect. He is not aloof and detached and does not seek to be above the party conflict. He is hyperactive and partisan. But even this image is seen as more stronger than his opponent, who is nicknamed ‘Flanby’ after a soft, bland, and wobbly dessert.

While it remains possible that Sarkozy’s relatively robust polling on the issues will translate into a swing in the last few days of the campaign, his best result since the first round has been a six point deficit.

Much media attention has focused on the ‘surprise’ vote for the Fronte Nationale candidate, Marine Le Pen. She scored – as her party always does – a few points above the opinion polls. Le Pen supports higher taxes on big business (the current rate is “a crying injustice”), opposes international trade and privatization, and blames the financial crisis on speculators and competition. The media therefore calls her “far right” (Reuters), “right wing” (Euronews) a “far right spitfire” (Newsweek).

It seems a strange distortion of her views and platform to describe her as anything but a robustly left-wing candidate, though not quite as left-wing as the Left List candidate, who wanted a tax rate of 100% once income hits around $500,000. Though Sarkozy described himself as the French equivalent of Margaret Thatcher when he first ran in 2005, there is no-one in France today that any American would recognize as a conservative. All strands of opinion want to expand the already bloated and flabby French state. The nearest is probably Francois Bayrou, a perennial candidate, already eliminated. Until Sarkozy posed as a conservative last time, Bayrou was normally seen as the most free market candidate in France. Confusingly, he is described as a centrist.

(n.b. this article posted two days before the election runoff vote)


Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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