With the first round approaching in a few short weeks, tensions over the outcome of the French presidential election are rapidly mounting. According to last week’s Le Parisien, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is the subject of great media controversy for his very conservative political views, is leading the way with a forecasted thirty-six percent of the vote. Uncertainty remains, however, as Socialist candidate Segolene Royal lags by only a single percentage point and half of sampled voters remain undecided. This election has drawn significant media attention worldwide as much for its uncertainty as for its polarization: the unique breadth of advocacy groups which has emerged has brought a plethora of radically new ideas up for debate.
Representing the right-wing UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) party of current President Jacques Chirac, Nicholas Sarkozy has captivated media attention as much by his shockingly conservative ideas as by the strong popular support which they have brought him. Socialist nominee Segolene Royal has emerged as the dominant left-wing candidate in a campaign centered on social justice with substantial attention to labor issues. Sarkozy’s already tenuous lead over Royal is, however, under serious threat from center right UDF (Union for French Democracy) candidate Francois Bayrou. Marketing himself late in the game as a middle of-the-road third party candidate, Bayrou is picking up a substantial conservative-leaning segment of the population and is rapidly gaining ground on Sarkozy.
A force often unnoticed by international observers, the telling force in this election may not be the presence of a third mainstream party so much as the characteristic fragmentation of the French population into minor parties of extremists. The official list of parties putting fourth a presidential candidate this year includes twelve groups, just shy of the record-breaking list of 2002, which divided the leftist vote and ended in a victory for Chirac that year. The plethora of lesser-known “minor” candidates is interesting in its ability to break up support for some of the major candidates as much as in the frequent assumption of leadership positions by candidates of these parties who are eliminated in the first round of elections. The so-called “left-of-left force” in this election is composed mainly of Trotskyites, ecologists, and a variety of workers groups, popularizing slogans such as “our lives are worth more than their profits,” (Olivier Besancenot, Revolutionary Communist League). Also holding a substantial presence in the smaller league are Lutte Ouvriere (Workers’ Fight) candidate Arlette Languiller and Jose Bove, representing an unnamed group whose effective purpose is to combat globalization.
Although the far right features the occasional single-issue advocacy group (among the more unconventional is the right-wing ecology party: “Hunting, Fishing, Nature, Traditions”), the conservative end of the political spectrum is overwhelmingly dominated by the Front Nationale (National Front) and its nominee Jean-Marie Le Pen. Until the 2002 election, the Front Nationale was widely discounted as a fringe party; its agenda only began to be taken seriously when Le Pen qualified for the second round in this election. As the icon of a political philosophy that is anti-immigration, anti-EU, highly nationalistic and is unafraid of heavy censorship to achieve these aims, Le Pen is widely decried as a xenophobic bigot, an anti-Semite and a racist; his success in 2002 sent shock-waves through the French nation. While factions of communists and socialists split the left, the extreme right was astonishingly unified under Le Pen, who took as much as 44 percent of the vote in regions of eastern France. Agence France-Presse predicts that he will not receive as much support in 2007, and poll numbers certainly seem to support this prediction. There is without a doubt, a resurgence of the far right in the French political spectrum; however this demographic category, once so strongly unified, may now see unification with the center as a more effective way to achieve its aims.
Indeed, each mainstream candidate is vying for the support of this indeterminate segment of the population. Some believe the far-right vote will go to Sarkozy, the most conservative of the furthest right-leaning of the major candidates. Sarkozy is no doubt aware of this: his stance has moved further and further from center, most likely in an attempt to win over as much of the far right as possible. The New York Times reported that in an election speech last summer, he expressed the need to “rid Arab and Muslim suburbs of scum.” When this statement was followed by three weeks of violent suburban riots, Sarkozy opted to avoid the suburbs in his campaign rather than tone down his oratory style. As the election approaches, the aggressiveness of Sarkozy’s stated goals has begun to catch up to his rhetoric: he recently announced his plan for a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity for the purpose of instilling secular democratic values in the nation’s immigrants. Critics have denounced this project as the ideological descendent of World War II’s Vichy government, a fascistic excess of nationalistic fervor. Unfazed, Sarkozy asserts: “I want the promotion of a common culture.”
Royal, for her part, has called this Sarkozy’s bureaucratic institutionalization of culture disgraceful; however, the shift in her own public discourse reveals that she has not missed the importance of appealing to the right wing either. While openly criticizing Sarkozy, she proposes that each citizen memorize the Marseillaise and display the flag on public holidays, an appeal to the extreme right’s distinguishing patriotism that is more subtle, and less alienating, to the left because it is without material consequence.
In response, Le Pen has claimed validation by imitation of his ideology. Le Pen’s would-be government, would–as his slogan “defend France for the French,” not-so-subtly suggests—“defend” France from immigrants who present a dual-faceted problem of cultural and economic assimilation. The influx of immigrants France has seen in recent years has not assuaged already severe joblessness, instead serving to intensify debate over potential solutions. Unemployment is an important campaign issue across the entire political spectrum, but, in its relation to immigration laws, is of particular relevance to the platform of the extreme right.
In an interview with Le Monde, Sarkozy proposed complete abolition of the longstanding 35 hour policy as a solution to France’s 12 percent unemployment. Arguing that the French economy’s problems are primarily rooted in a lack of value placed on work itself, rather than its terms and conditions, Sarkozy asserted that the practical result of the 35 hour policy is to spread a fixed amount of employment over a larger number of workers, thus creating more jobs without creating any more real work. Segolene Royal has proposed a reexamination of the 35 hour legislation with the aim of repair and reform rather than elimination.
Intensifying debate on issues of every-day relevance to the mainstream French voter, the abundance of issues affected by immigration has been instrumental in bringing the far-right vote to the forefront of this election. Interestingly, the only candidate left unaffected by the extreme right is Francois Bayrou, who has remained neutral in the patriotism debate. He has denounced ostentatious displays of patriotism as a sign of desperation: the front of control put up by a nation that wields none. Whether the far-right is absorbed by Sarkozy’s rapidly sliding platform or, fearing that Sarkozy’s center-base will be lost to Bayrou in the process, is persuaded to Royal’s nationalistic compromise, the influence of the far-right and its pet issue in this election will be crucial. Ultimately, the election’s key controversies take their roots in an issue whose strongest rhetoric has a long history in the French extreme right: immigration.