In early May, France will elect a new president. The chances of reelection for 57-year old Nicolas Sarkozy look slim. The agreement of the eurozone countries to provide Greece with a new bailout of €130bn has postponed a chaotic default of Greece until well after the presidential elections in France next May. That is good news for Sarkozy. But it may not be enough to secure him a second five-year term. Leading figures in Sarkozy's UMP party are already preparing for the post-Sarkozy era.
France elects its president in two rounds. The first ballot is held on April 22. In this first round, voters can choose from all the candidates who are qualified to run for election. To be allowed to run for president, a candidate must collect the signatures of 500 elected French representatives, such as mayors, regional councilors, national deputies and senators, or French members of the European Parliament.
The second ballot is held on May 6. Only the two candidates who win the most votes in the first ballot are allowed to run in the second round. It is generally expected that these two candidates will be Sarkozy and his Socialist rival, 57-year old François Hollande. The polls predict that Hollande will beat Sarkozy in the second round. Ordinary Frenchmen are dissatisfied with Sarkozy's record. When he became president in 2007, Sarkozy promised to counter the islamization process and restore public order in France. He has not been able to turn the tide. Sarkozy is also held responsible for the way in which France and other countries in the eurozone, the group of countries using the euro as their currency, managed the economic crisis following the inability of southern eurozone countries, such as Greece and Portugal, to repay their debts.
The three politicians who are expected to do best in the first round are Hollande, Sarkozy and 43-year old Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National (FN). Hollande is a fierce critic of the austerity policies which the eurozone has introduced for all its member states. Le Pen is advocating economic protectionism and the reintroduction of the French franc as the nation's currency.
Polls predict that in the first ballot Hollande will win between 31 and 34 percent of the votes, Sarkozy between 24 and 26 percent, and Le Pen between 16 and 20 percent. If Le Pen surpasses Sarkozy, she will come out against Hollande in the second round. In 2002, Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the FN, managed to get through to the second round when he got more votes than the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin. He lost in the second round to President Chirac.
Trailing behind Hollande, Sarkozy and Le Pen are 60-year old François Bayrou, a center-left Christian-Democrat, and the 60-year old Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the far-left Front de Gauche (Left Front). Bayrou is expected to win between 10 and 15 percent and Mélenchon might poll around 10 percent. There are a number of other (mostly leftist) candidates, including 68-year old Eva Joly, the Norwegian-born leader of the Green Party, but they are not expected to make much of an impression.
Although the polls still include Marine Le Pen, and though until a few months ago some expected her to do better than the unpopular Sarkozy, it looks ever more likely that the FN-leader will not be able to run at all.
Marine Le Pen represents almost one fifth of the French voters, but she has so far only managed to collect 350 signatures. Although France has 47,000 elected representatives (of whom over 37,000 mayors), who are allowed to give their signatures to presidential candidates, the FN only has a handful. Unlike most other European countries, France does not have proportional representation. Like the U.S. and Britain, it has a majority system in which, apart from the two major parties, it is difficult for third parties to get its candidates elected.
Far-left candidates, such as Mélenchon and Joly, whose parties are even smaller than Le Pen's, were able to collect the signatures of 500 elected representatives because they encountered no problems in collecting the signatures of center-right representatives. The latter were pleased to help leftist candidates; they hope that an abundance of candidates on the left will split the leftist vote and harm Hollande. Le Pen, however, is unable to collect signatures from both the center-right and the left. The law obliges candidates to publish the names of the representatives who support their candidacy. Center-right mayors fear the wrath of Sarkozy if they make it possible for Le Pen to run. Leftist representatives refuse to support her out of principle or because they feel intimidated by far-left activists who threaten violence against anyone who helps the FN.
If Le Pen cannot run – and this looks ever more likely – Sarkozy will benefit. According to the polls, Le Pen's absence from the first round will lift Sarkozy's percentage to 33, almost as high as Hollande's. Whether this will help Sarkozy to win in the second and decisive round, however, is uncertain.
Sarkozy's party, the UMP (Union pour le Mouvement Populaire, the Union for a Popular Movement), is a loose amalgam of different factions. It was founded in 2002 by then president Jacques Chirac as the Union pour la Majorité Présidentielle (Union for a presidential majority) to assure a center-right majority in the parliamentary elections. Between 1997 and 2002, Chirac had been forced to govern with a Socialist-dominated Assemblée Nationale (as the Congress is called in France), a frustrating experience which he hoped to avoid.
The UMP resulted from the merger of various centrist and center-right parties, including Chirac's conservative Gaullist RPR (Rally for the Republic), the Christian-Democrat UDF (Union for French Democracy), the classical-liberal DL (Liberal Democracy) and a part of the social-liberal Radical Party. In 2002 and 2007, the UMP was united enough to push the Socialists into opposition. What united the party was its opposition to the Socialists and the fact that it was the vehicle of a ruling President (Chirac in 2002, Sarkozy in 2007), who allowed every faction to profit from the fact that the party was in power.
However, if Sarkozy loses in May, the UMP is bound to disintegrate since its various factions – conservatives (or Gaullists), center-right liberals (or Sarkozists), centrist Christian-Democrats and center-left Radicals – have little in common and are already quarrelling about the tone of the electoral campaign which Sarkozy has to conduct.
Some want Sarkozy to emphasize the economic issues and focus on centrist voters; others want him to focus on social and cultural issues in order to attract FN votes. One of the latter is French Interior Minister Claude Guéant, who caused a controversy a few weeks ago by stating that all civilizations "are not of equal value." Although Guéant did not use the word "Muslim," everyone understood whom he was referring to. "Those that defend liberty, equality and fraternity, seem to us superior to those that accept tyranny, the subservience of women, and social and ethnic hatred," he said, stressing the need to "protect our civilization."
Guéant's comments led to accusations of xenophobia, also from some within the UMP. Pundits predict that the centrists will leave the UMP if Nicolas Sarkozy conducts a right-wing campaign and fails to get reelected.
If Sarkozy loses in early May from François Hollande, a good result for the UMP in the parliamentary elections next June seems almost impossible. Many UMP members with roots in the Christian-Democrat UDF hope that François Bayrou, especially if he manages to attract up to 15 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections, might be capable of building a broad centrist party following the demise of the UMP.
Another beneficiary from an unraveling of the UMP would be Marine Le Pen. Since Le Pen is less of an extremist than her father, she might be able to attract members of the UMP's right wing. If this happens, her chances of winning seats in the National Assembly increase. A third beneficiary of Sarkozy's defeat would be Jean-François Copé, the leader of the center-right liberal wing of the UMP. With both the left and the right wings of the UMP leaving, Copé would inherit the rump UMP and become the leader of the main parliamentary opposition party, thereby enhancing his chances of winning the presidential elections in 2017.
However, while some are already preparing to divide the spoils after Sarkozy's defeat, the French President has not been defeated yet. Sarkozy is a formidable campaigner and, although it seems unlikely at present, it is not impossible that he makes an electoral comeback in the coming two months. If that happens, it will not be the UMP which implodes, but Hollande's Parti Socialiste. Indeed, if the PS suffers four humiliating defeats in four presidential elections in a row, many Socialists might join Jean-Luc Mélenchon's Left Front, a party which he established in 2009 after leaving the PS.
What is clear in any event is that, after May 6, France's political landscape is in for a major realignment, whether it be on the right or on the left.