Observations from the first round of the French Presidential Election
by: Jessie Lin

PART I: Before the election
The official campaigning for the 2012 Presidential election kicked off the Tuesday after the long Easter weekend.  It is an exciting time to be in France to see this process; I almost wish I had the right to vote here.

The French presidential election consists of two rounds.  The first round takes place on Sunday, April 22nd, where a total of ten candidates will be on the ballot.  Candidates can only enter the first round of elections after they have obtained 500 signatures from elected officials throughout France.  These signatures cannot be anonymous.  Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin was not able to enter the race because he lacked signatures and the candidate Marine Le Pen wasn’t able to fulfill this requirement until a few weeks ago.  If no one single candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, then the top two candidates will go head-to-head in the second round of the election on May 6th.

So far this week, I have been bombarded at metros stations with volunteers handing out flyers.  All week long, candidates have appeared on television, radio shows, and held rallies all over France.    There are very specific rules during the campaigning process.  All rules are strictly enforced by the Conseil Superieur de l’audiovisuel (CSA).  Candidates technically only have four days of media campaigning for the first round of elections.  Posters and television ads were only allowed to be put on the Tuesday after the Easter weekend.  Official boards were set up by the local governments throughout France specifically for campaign posters; they are not allowed outside of these boards.  All posters have to be the same size for each candidate, and they cannot have a white background.  (As a side note, almost all posters have been heavily vandalized the day after they were put up).  Each candidate is only allowed a total of 43 minutes of commercial ads on French television.  All forms of media campaigning must end at might on Friday, April 20.  After that, nothing can be diffused and no interviews can be conducted until 8pm on April 22nd after the closing of all polls.

A view of the campaign posters courtesy of lemonade.fr

For the past month television news, magazines, and journals have all surrounded itself on the presidential campaign.  The stakes are high this year, with issues revolving around the economy (with France recently losing its AAA rating), debt, unemployment, immigration, nuclear power, education, and so on.  The two frontrunners this year are incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy from the Union for a Popular Movement Party (UMP) party and his biggest challenger François Hollande from the Socialist Party.  The two are pretty much neck-in-neck with each other in the polls right now.  Both candidates held a rally in Paris this past Sunday, April 15th with each boasting to have around 100,000 people in attendance.  There are two other candidates that are capable of making a good showing in the first round of elections.  From the extreme right party of the Front National, there is Marine Le Pen, the daughter of the party’s founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who in 2002 made it to the second round of the elections, shocking France and the world.  One of Le Pen’s proposals is to exit the Euro and return to the Franc.  On the other end of the spectrum, there is Jean-Luc Mélenchon from the Front Gauche party.  Mélenchon has been rising in the polls recently and is capable of taking votes from the Socialist Party.  At a rally in Marseille this past weekend, he drew around 120,000 supporters.  Two other notable candidates are Francois Bayrou, the centrist, and Eva Joly, who campaigns mostly on environmental and ecological issues.

I’ve spoken to many French people regarding the elections.  Most that I’ve spoken to (maybe it’s my circle) detests Sarkozy, yet, they still think he has a very good chance of being re-elected.  Every time I mention Marine Le Pen, I see a disgusted look.  Everyone that I have spoken to mentioned that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former chief of the International Monetary Fund, who had been a strong candidate to represent the Socialist Party, would have surely won the election had he not been involved in his many sex scandals.  For many, Hollande is not the ideal candidate from the Socialist Party.  He has never held a national office and many consider him still living in the shadow of his ex-partner Ségolène Royal, the Presidential candidate from the Socialist Party in 2007.  Hollande has made significant changes to his image since he won the nomination in his party; he has lost weight, and became less of a “funny man” to ensure a more serious and firm look better fit for a President.

Politics in France and Europe is quite different than that in Taiwan or even the US.  The two countries have always been dominated by 2 major parties.  Very rarely would a third or fourth party candidate be able to rally a significant percentage of votes.  From my observations, politics in Taiwan has never been a spectrum from the left to right.  And for the most part, people tend to vote along party lines rather than for the candidate and his or her policies.  In the United States, the difference between left and right is often unclear.  I have realized that the meaning of the word “liberal” has very different meanings in the US and Europe.  Maybe it’s the history of the cold war and anti-communism in the US, but Americans are very sensitive when it comes to the word “socialism”.  The word is often equated with communism; therefore very rarely will one proclaim to be a socialist.

There should be no surprises in the first round of the French Presidential election.  And with the second round only two weeks away, the final two candidates will have to quickly convince the voters who have casted their ballots for the other eight candidates.

PART II: After the election
The votes have been counted and the results are in!  A few interesting facts to note:

  • The turnout rate for the first round was high with 80% of participation from eligible voters.
  • Hollande won 29.2% of the vote while Sarkozy had 27%.  The two will face off in a run-off on May 6th.
  • Perhaps the biggest surprise was Marine Le Pen, who pulled in 17.3% of the vote, the most her party has ever received.  She gained more votes than her father, who made it to the second round with 16.8% in 2002.
  • Jean-Luc Mélenchon won a disappointing 11.4% despite a very promising campaign.
  • Francois Bayrou who won 18.6% in 2007 was only able to gain 8.8% this time.
  • This is the first time that the incumbent President has failed to come out on top in the first round of elections.
  • Nicolas Sarkozy lost around 2 million votes than the first round of elections in 2007.

Not long after the results came in, Eva Joly asked for her supporters to rally around Hollande in the second round, while Jean-Luc Mélenchon told his supporters to “vote against Sarkozy”.  What Sarkozy needs to do now is to convince the far-right voters that he can too represent their interests.  So far polls are showing that Hollande will come out on top in the run-off but he still needs to be careful as the roads are still uneven.  With only two weeks left until the next round of elections, the best campaigning action and debates are yet to come!


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