Global Viewpoint

Professor Marcus Keller discusses the recent election in France

5/29/2012  8:00 am

Marcus Keller is an associate professor in the Department of French at Illinois. A specialist of early modern French literature and culture, he is the author of Figurations of France: Literary Nation-Building in Times of Crisis, 1550-1650 (Newark: U of Delaware Press, 2011), as well as articles on Rabelais, Montaigne, and Corneille among others. Further research and teaching interests include French and European theater and performance studies, and the appropriation of early modern literature and culture in contemporary arts and philosophy. Here, Prof. Keller discusses the recent French Presidential election, held in two rounds on April 22 and May 6, which saw François Hollande defeat incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.

A member of the French Socialist Party, Hollande’s victory suggests a significant shift in the political leanings of the French people. What would you consider some of the causes of this national shift toward the left?

I don’t think that the election results reflect a major shift of France’s population toward the left. Consider the outcome of the second round: François Hollande won by a very narrow margin, just over 1.1 million votes or 3% of the electorate. This indicates above all that the country is equally split between the left and the right, not unlike what we have been seeing in the U.S. in recent years. In terms of the actual political landscape in France, the first round of the presidential election was much more revelatory. With 17.9 % of the vote, Marine Le Pen, candidate of the extreme right Front National, scored the best result ever for her party in a presidential election. While Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leading a movement positioned on the left of Hollande’s Socialist Party, came in fourth with 11.1 % of the vote, François Bayrou, the candidate of the centrist MoDem party, had his worst showing so far (9.1 %). In other words, the big shift that we have seen in this election is one to the extremes of the political spectrum, expressing the frustration of large parts of the population with the political establishment and the direction their country is taking. Let’s not forget that, during the second round, invalid protest votes outnumbered those that gave Hollande the decisive advantage over Sarkozy. We will probably see this move of the electorate from the center towards the margins reaffirmed during the parliamentary elections on June 16.

Hollande ran under the promise of being a “normal” president. What are some of the “abnormalities” that cost Sarkozy the election?

The presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy has brought to light that the French still expect their president to be a dignified leader who stays above the fray of daily politics to make only decisions of national importance, and secures France’s influence internationally. Early on Sarkozy was perceived as “hyper-active,” making several public appearances a day, personally dealing with political matters of all sorts while committing more than one highly publicized verbal faux pas along the way. I was struck by the degree to which the French seemed to take issue with Sarkozy’s style even if they agreed with his policies. I often heard people qualify Sarkozy as “vulgaire,” an epithet that carries a much heavier weight in French than in English. In essence, in the eyes of many, Sarkozy had violated too often French common notions of decency, restraint, and—the most elusive of all—good taste. At the beginning of the presidency, Sarkozy wearing Ray Bans while publicly promenading with his new wife, ex-model and singer-songwriter Carla Bruni, and other such episodes dominated the headlines for weeks and created an image that stuck with him, no matter how much he tried to deflect it. When François Hollande made “normalcy” the catchword of his campaign, he indirectly made the promise that with him the French presidency would no longer be marred by the perceived extravagance and missteps of the sitting president, and that he would restore the stability and dignity that the French expect of the highest office, especially during turbulent, “abnormal” times.

Hollande has been critical of German-led austerity measures in the European Union. In fact, German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly supported Sarkozy. What effect could Hollande’s election have within the EU?

With the arrival of François Hollande at the Elysée Palace, Europe’s proponents of economic growth through public spending have a new figurehead. In fact, Hollande has already galvanized the opposition to German-led austerity policies in the E.U. that were supported by Nicolas Sarkozy. However, Hollande and Merkel will have to find a middle ground soon because a prolonged disharmony between the two countries would be perceived as a source of unneeded further instability in the E.U. A compromise already seems to crystalize: both leaders acknowledge the necessity of continued austerity but also emphasize the need to stimulate growth. As the recent G8 summit and in high-level talks in Brussels have shown, though, there are considerable disagreements between France and Germany about how to reach these goals, and it remains to be seen how and when Hollande and Merkel will arrive at a compromise.

One of the biggest issues in France is immigration. Where does Hollande stand on this issue, and how does that differ from Sarkozy?

Contrary to Nicolas Sarkozy, who took a tough, polarizing stance on immigration and ran the last days of his campaign on the theme of closing national borders to lure voters away from his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen, Hollande presented himself as the candidate of national reconciliation and integration. As a first concrete measure, he proposed to give immigrants the right to vote on the local level. Throughout his campaign, Hollande emphasized the importance of addressing the issue of economic inequality, afflicting all French alike, regardless of their background. Unlike Sarkozy and Le Pen, the latter running on a crude anti-immigration platform, Hollande defused the problem, warning of the demagogic exploitation of immigration and refusing to go down the path paved by the Front National.

Much like in the U.S., a major issue in the French presidential campaign was the struggling economy. How does Hollande propose fixing the French economy?

François Hollande has declared that he wants to balance the national budget within the next five years. He also wants to stimulate the economy immediately by creating more public sector jobs, especially in education, after years of cutting under Sarkozy, financed by a tax increase on the wealthiest to up to 75%. The first measure his government took was to slash their own salaries and those of other senior officials, including the president’s, by 30% effective immediately. While this measure was largely symbolic, it set the tone of Hollande’s presidency: a return to more economic equality and social cohesion. Hollande has also vowed to make the continuous problem of high youth unemployment, currently hovering at above 20%, one of his priorities. It remains to be seen if and how France’s new president will make good on his promises in a climate of sluggish growth and increasing international uncertainty about the European debt crisis. Contrary to his opponents’ predictions, though, the French stock market did not plummet the day after Hollande’s victory.