Saturday, April 21, 2007

The French vote for President ... & Ségolène Royal praises Tony Blair

The first round of the French Presidential election is happening today. Early reports indicate heavy voter turnout. This is an extremely important election, and the ultimate result is genuinely unpredictable.

Among the major candidates, curiously enough, the one who identifies himself most strongly as an opponent of the status quo and an advocate of sweeping reforms is the candidate of the ruling center-right coalition, Nicolas Sarkozy. (Of course, not everyone would agree that the kinds of changes he proposes constitute "reforms.") Sarkozy and Chirac, who allegedly represent the same neo-Gaullist party, openly loathe each other. But all the major candidates claim to stand, in one way or another, for 'change'. The Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal, won her party's nomination against the strong and almost unanimous opposition of the rest of the party leadership. Royal won the hearts of the Socialist party rank-and-file (a US-style primary of party members gave her the nomination), but she doesn't seem to have been as successful in winning over the general electorate.

Opinion polls differ in the details, but so far all of them give Sarkozy a slight lead over Royal. An independent self-described "centrist" candidate from another center-right party, François Bayrou, has been nipping at their heels for months. Bayrou has been running as an outsider more than anything else, and the strength of his candidacy seems to be in large part a sign of widespread dissatisfaction with the established French political class. Jean-Marie Le Pen, head of the far-right xenophobic & racist National Front, stunned everyone--and appalled many--in 2002 by forcing out the Socialist candidate and winning a place in the second round of the election, in which he was then crushed by Chirac. (Anti-Le Pen demonstrators marched under the immortal slogan: "Vote for the crook, not the fascist!" Chirac has been dogged by long-running corruption scandals, but has been protected from legal jeopardy by Presidential immunity.) This time around, it doesn't look as though Le Pen will make it into the top two. But polling figures have always understated his support, so he might surprise everyone again. Then, of course, there are the usual swarms of minor candidates, who may siphon off enough votes from one or another of the main candidates to influence the first-round result.

The polls also indicate high proportions of respondents saying they were still undecided. We'll have to see what happens. Meanwhile, a few offhand thoughts.

=> In the election-eve overview below, London Times correspondent Charles Bremner highlights one interesting tidbit from a radio interview by the Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal. In the French political and intellectual world, there is an overwhelming consensus that anyone who considers himself or herself to be left-wing or progressive--or, for that matter, a standard Gaullist--is supposed to dislike and vilify Tony Blair and "blairisme" as a matter of course. Beyond the question of the 2003 Iraq war, Blair is held to represent the dreaded "Anglo-Saxon" model that is seen as a mortal threat to French civilization. A few months back Royal said something favorable about Blair and took a lot of heat for it, so she has mostly been trying to avoid the subject. However, in a major radio interview just before the election, she addressed the subject head-on and openly praised Blair. In a French context, this was startling.
Royal roused her followers in Toulouse, but more interesting to report was her unexpected tribute to Tony Blair on France-Inter radio this morning. [....] When France-Inter taunted her over Blair this morning, I expected her to perform her usual evasion, instead, she bravely said the following:

"There was a taboo. The Socialists were not supposed to mention Tony Blair. My concern is to look at what works and see how we can apply solutions to France. Tony Blair invested massively in public services, in health care, schools and the battle against youth unemployment. He succeeded in meeting the challenge."
Let's leave aside the substantive question of whether or not Blair deserves this tribute. (I think he mostly does.) The fact that Royal said it, and said it in such a conspicuous and straightforward way, is intriguing in itself. Was this an incident that fits Michael Kinsley's definition of what a "gaffe" means in American politics--that is, when a politician accidentally or unintentionally tells the truth in public. Was it a case of sincerity trumping calculations of political expediency? Or was it, contrary to first appearances, the product of political calculations--that is, did Royal and her advisers decide that, contrary to conventional wisdom, "bravely" saying something favorable about Blair would help rather than hurt her with significant portions of the French electorate. Any of these three alternatives would tell us something interesting.

(The foreign political figure with whom Royal has most strongly identified herself is the Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, a Socialist elected in 2006 as the first woman President of Chile. Incidentally, both Bachelet and her predecessor Ricardo Lagos, who is also from the Socialist Party, could be described as Blairist in some important respects.)

=> Sarkozy and his wife have apparently been having marital difficulties, and his wife has been conspicuously absent from the campaign.
Libération today ran a column pointing up the pusillanimity of the French media. In a US campaign, if the candidate's wife went AWOL, he would face immediate questions, but in France there is silence, said Daniel Schneiderman, Libération's media columnist.
If French journalists have avoided gossiping and obsessing about Sarkozy's family life and focused on other matters, why on earth should that be described as "pusillanimity"? On the contrary, this strikes me as a sign that, at least in this one respect, France is a more politically mature and sensible country than we are.

=> I notice from Friday's New York Times article about the French election that Le Pen has accused Sarkozy, whose father and maternal grandfather were immigrants (the latter a Greek Jew who converted to Catholicism, no less), of not really being French.
“Mr. Sarkozy, the world does not revolve around your little person,” Mr. Le Pen said at a rally on Sunday. “Long before your parents came from Hungary or Greece, there was at the heart of the French people a national current that cared more about the interests of the country than about its ruling class.”
Sarkozy, for his part, has unabashedly evoked his immigrant roots.

=> One last point. My impression is that all three of the leading candidates oppose Turkey's admission into the European Union, though some might describe Royal's position on this issue as skeptically non-committal. Certainly none of them have spoken in favor of Turkish membership. (Le Pen, of course, doesn't just want to keep out the Turks--he would like to deport Muslim "immigrant" citizens of France who are already there.) This consensus is a troubling sign for the future.

--Jeff Weintraub

[Update: In the end, according to early official counts reported the Guardian, Sarkozy and Royale finished well ahead of the rest of the pack: "Sarko v Ségo in French poll: France sets up battle of left and right". Sarkozy got an estimated 30.5% of the votes, the best first-round showing for a right-wing Presidential candidate in 30 years. Royal took an estimated 25.7%, "the highest for a Socialist since Francois Mitterrand in 1988." Bayrou received about 19% and Le Pen about 11%. As the BBC report notes, "disillusionment with politicians and their promises did not translate into apathy." The overall turnout was 85%--apparently the highest figure since 1965, and one that we can barely imagine here in the US. The second and final round of the Presidential election will be on Sunday, May 6.]

=========================
The Times (London)
April 20, 2007
French race finishes. Ségo hails Blair

Charles Bremner is Paris Correspondent for The Times and has previously reported from New York and Brussels.

Les12

Here they are for the last time. From Sunday evening only two of these 12 faces will be left in the French presidential race. The final batch of polls today all suggest that the two-week run-off will be the long-expected left-right duel between Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy.

But the undecided vote remains extraordinarily high at about 30 percent. Of course François Bayrou, the centrist, and Jean-Marie Le Pen of the far right have been proclaiming their certainty that they will make it into the final. Bayrou, at least, is still in with a chance.

In Nice last night, Le Pen predicted a "tsunami" of support on Sunday (my moment with Le Pen in today's paper). Bayrou, down in his Pyrenean home, spent the day fulminating over an editorial in Le Monde which decreed that Royal must reach the run-off because the exclusion of the Socialists would somehow be a denial of democracy. The editorial, by Jean-Marie Colombani, the longserving boss of France's most august newspaper, gave Bayrou an opportunity once again to pose as a humble musketeer fighting "the good old connivence among the political, financial and media establishment."

Royal roused her followers in Toulouse, but more interesting to report was her unexpected tribute to Tony Blair on France-Inter radio this morning.

Readers here may remember that Royal has tried to rid herself of the taint of blairisme from which she suffered after praising the British Prime Minister early last year. When France-Inter taunted her over Blair this morning, I expected her to perform her usual evasion, instead, she bravely said the following:

"There was a taboo. The Socialists were not supposed to mention Tony Blair. My concern is to look at what works and see how we can apply solutions to France. Tony Blair invested massively in public services, in health care, schools and the battle against youth unemployment. He succeeded in meeting the challenge."

Ségo also tackled another item that has landed her in hot water -- the way that she has used her sex as a campaign argument, saying "vote for me because I'm a woman". While the argument seems to work with women voters, according to polls, she has been attacked by leading feminists who do not like what they see as politically incorrect logic. "It's the wrong strategy, totally counterproductive, Michèle Fitoussi, a heavyweight commentator told The New York Times. "Women are going to vote for Ségolène because they believe she's most qualified to be president, not because she's a woman. It's an insult to our intelligence to ask us to do such a thing."

Sylviane Agacinski, a philospher who is the wife of Lionel Jospin, the last Socialist Prime Minister, denounced the Royal argument in Le Monde this week. "I do not agree with a feminism that sees itself as a sort of reverse male chauvinism," said Agacinski. "Making femininity a decisive campaign argument is surely making gender play an exorbitant and illegitimate role."

Royal's answer to this today was: "France needs a head of state who sees things differently and who has understood that everything is connected. I don't know if this global approach is feminine but in any event, I take responsibility for my femininity... It is perhaps this which helps me understand this holistic approach."

Sarkozy does not use his virility as an argument but the message is clear from his pugnacious language and gestures. The second round, assuming we have a Ségo-Sarko duel, will be about the masculine versus the feminine, Napoléon Bonaparte versus Joan of Arc. In case anyone missed the point, Sarko chose an extraordinary venue for his final campaign appearance yesterday -- a visit to a bull farm. Dressed like a cowboy, he rode around a farm that breeds fighting bulls in the Camargue.

Cécilia Sarkozy is still absent (last post). Libération today ran a column pointing up the pusillanimity of the French media. In a US campaign, if the candidate's wife went AWOL, he would face immediate questions, but in France there is silence, said Daniel Schneiderman, Libération's media columnist. Sarkozy gave an oblique answer when asked vaguely about his private life in Le Parisien today: "My family has suffered a lot from certain controversies," he said.

This campaign has been full of paradoxes. The French, who were said to be alienated by politics, have taken more interest than in any presidential race for decades, as shown by opinion polls and ratings for television political broadcasts. Yet, according to an Opinionway poll today 59 percent of the public thinks that the campaign has been "of poor quality". The highest marks for effective campaigning went to Bayrou with a 74 percent favourable rating then Sarkozy at 63 percent and Le Pen at 43 percent. The disappointment over Royal was reflected in the 63 percent who think that she has run a poor campaign.

There are two more weeks of this to go for Sunday's top pair. We should have reliable exit polls by about 18.30 Paris time on Sunday.

Here are final TNS Sofres and CSA opinion poll graphs since last November. The top four are Sarkozy, Royal, Bayrou and Le Pen.

Sondages1_2

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