01 October 2014

France: Heading For a showdown

 - Tuesday, 24 April 2012, 00:00

Francois Hollande, a mild-mannered French Socialist who wants to take better care of the jobless and the poor, is heading to a presidential run-off election against tough-on-immigration Nicolas Sarkozy in a vote that could alter Europe’s political and economic landscape.

Hollande heads into the 6 May second round with the upper hand after narrowly edging the conservative Sarkozy in the first round of France’s voting on Sunday.

In the campaign’s biggest surprise, nearly one in five voters chose far-right candidate Marine Le Pen instead, handing her a solid third place and a chance to weigh in on French politics with her anti-immigration platform that targets France’s millions of Muslims.

Turnout was also surprisingly high, at more than 80%, despite concern that a campaign focusing on nostalgia for a more protected past would fail to inspire voters.

Hollande, a 57-year-old who has worried financial markets with his pledges to boost government spending, vowed to cut France’s huge debts, boost growth and unite the French after Sarkozy’s divisive first term.

Sarkozy, speaking at his campaign headquarters on Paris’ Left Bank, said he recognised voters’ concerns about jobs and immigration, and “the concern of our compatriots to preserve their way of life”.

Three French polls conducted on Sunday evening as results came in predicted Hollande would win the 6 May run-off by 8 to 12 percentage points. Ipsos, CSA and IFOP said their soundings showed worries about jobs and personal income which drove many voters.

Sarkozy is battling to avoid becoming France’s first one-term president since Valery Giscard d’Estaing lost to Socialist Francois Mitterrand in 1981. Sarkozy has said he’ll pull out of politics if he loses.

The race is on now to sway Le Pen’s voters for the decisive second round. Le Pen herself said last week that she was not going to give instructions to her voters.

While Sarkozy has borrowed some of her anti-immigrant rhetoric and campaign themes of national identity, Le Pen has repeatedly criticised Sarkozy and says he is a has-been with no chance of returning to office.

The Socialist camp – not a natural ally for Le Pen supporters – reached out to her voters after Sunday’s result.

Le Pen rails against Europe, what she claims is the Islamisation of France and the “system” of bankers and decision-makers that she says is ruining France. She said that the “battle of France has just begun”.

Whatever happens to France’s leadership will affect the rest of the 27-nation European Union.

France was one of six countries that in the 1950s founded the predecessor of the EU, and is the eurozone’s second-largest economy after Germany.

Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel – a tandem that some call ‘Merkozy’ – have championed a treaty on budget austerity for the 17-nation eurozone. But Hollande wants the treaty to also address economic growth, not just cost-cutting.

At a time when voters across Europe have ousted incumbents amid economic woes, a Hollande victory would tilt the continent’s political balance to the left even as other leading European nations have governments on the right.

Hollande, who wants to tax high-income earners at 75%, has tapped into a fear of the free market that has always held more sway in France than almost anywhere in the West, and has enjoyed a resurgence in the era of Occupy Wall Street and anti-banker backlash.

Foreign policy has barely played a role in this campaign but will be a big part of the next president’s job. Candidates of many stripes want to bring France’s 3,600 troops home from the Nato-led mission in Afghanistan, and Hollande has vowed a fast timetable: A pullout by the end of this year.

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