More of the Same, but Different
"Plus les choses changent, plus elles restent les mêmes" (The more things change, the more they stay the same). The old French phrase captures the paradoxical essence of France's 2007 first-round presidential elections. French voters were anxious to break with the old tradition of "voting with their hearts" in the first round and "voting with their heads" in the final round. A voter turnout of 84 percent points to a nation deeply concerned about its future and determined to get it right the first time around. Yet, voters chose a ruling-party conservative, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Socialist Ségolène Royal-both meant to represent a new generation of leaders-to compete in a classic left-right contest.
The Nixon Center hosted a luncheon discussion on "The French Elections: First Results" on Monday April 23, 2007. Jeremy Shapiro, director of research and fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, addressed the possibilities of a new direction in France. Robert S. Leiken, the Center's director of immigration and national security program, moderated.
The obvious questions were raised. Who will prevail? What does this mean for France? Will this affect France's foreign policy? And how will this affect the U.S.-France relationship?
The overwhelming turnout suggests a change in election trends or perhaps a return to normalcy in the sense that there was a clear "rejection of extremes", and it appears that mainstream parties prevailed. This is mainly a reaction to the "stained" elections of 2002 where far-right extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the second round, Shapiro suggested. Also, this election benefited from the participation of new voters from France's "banlieues", (the communities that surround France's major cities) and newly arrived immigrants. Still though, this election was actually a "less ideological vote" than a realistic approach by voter's in hope of a change in the direction of French society, Shapiro said.
According to some in attendance, there seems to be a reawakening within new voters that has dismantled the fantasy of extreme parties promising a "third way." Shapiro referred to this as "nouveau realism" among voters that are more concerned with economic decline and the role France will play in international relations. Yet the legacy of the left wing of the socialist party will continue to have a "strong voice" when it comes to France's fiscal policies. This is another aspect of the French paradox.
While Sarkozy is currently the leader in French public opinion polls, his victory in the second round is not inevitable. Although Shapiro foresees an election highly focused on Sarkozy, he also says this does not mean Royal should be discounted. According to Shapiro, she is "clever." She will attempt to turn the second round election into a referendum on whether or not voters "like" Sarkozy, not whether he is capable of being president. And she will try to exploit voter's fears about Sarkozy's programs by painting him as a staunch conservative who is more interested in promoting French "national champions"-like his predecessor Chirac-than with the welfare of French citizens. Nonetheless, Royal will be hard-pressed to offer alternative ideas that are more attractive than Sarkozy's.
Shapiro predicts that both candidates will move towards the center while each will be at pains to point out their differences.
And even if Sarkozy-a professed admirer of the United States-wins the final election, the U.S.-France relationship is unlikely to drastically improve, considering the relationship is not based on "love" but mutual interests. However, there is an undercurrent of opposition to U.S. interests reflected in public opinion polls and candidates will not ignore this without losing votes.
So while French voters may vote for general economic reforms promised by candidates, it is unlikely that specific reforms will actually be enacted in the end. Shapiro suggested that Sarkozy, a pragmatist, may be viewed as a president who is not "afraid of the streets" and might actually address difficult issues like labor and immigration reform. This is important because in France there is what is called the "social third round", which comes after the second round of the elections in the form of a popular uprising in response to reforms of a particular president's program. But either way, systemic problems facing the French economy will probably not make or break either candidate's chances for election in the final round because France, in its current state, could probably avoid the necessary reforms to its current economic decline for at least five years, according to Shapiro.
The real challenge facing both candidates is how each will promise to re-invigorate and resurrect the "French identity", which is now sometimes grounded in opposition to the United States. Issues surrounding labor laws and immigration are also of importance, but if either one of the contestants in this battle between left and right can offer a new identity, especially with regards to France's role in the EU, then that candidate stands to benefit from that vision. As Sarkozy saidin an exclusive interviewwith The National Interest, "Fixing a geographic and political identity for the EU is an essential condition for reengaging our citizens in the European project." Though votes that went to Le Pen this time around are still up for grabs, Shapiro said these will probably land in the lap of Sarkozy. Unless Royal is able to trump Sarkozy on what it means to be French and what that means to voters, it will be a battle hard fought. So it seems France is headed in a new direction, but France is traveling down the same old road to get there.
James W. Riley is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.