Whenever one looks at the political scene in other countries, the famous line from The Wizard of Oz quickly comes to mind: “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore”. That is clearly the situation in France, which may well turn left in today’s presidential election.
Ideology aside, the situation is not surprising. Any election is a referendum on the incumbent, and President Nicolas Sarkozy has not delivered the turnaround in the economy that he promised in 2007. (Now whom does THAT remind you of?). Growth is sluggish, unemployment is high, and Sarkozy has made only modest progress in his campaign to make the French economy more competitive globally.
Socialist Francois Hollande is campaigning on a platform of more spending and higher taxes for the rich. It seems to be working. The French have a long tradition of government intervention in the economy. After all, the term “dirigiste” is a French word. American-style market capitalism tends to be rejected as a foreign transplant, very un-French, which is why Sarkozy’s reforms have run into so much trouble.
The French system thrives on multiple parties, who slug it out in the first round of a presidential campaign, leaving the top two contenders to go for the main prize in the second round, which occurs on May 6. The big surprise of the first round was the stunning performance of the radicalized right in the person of Marine Le Pen, whose Front National candidacy captured over 18% of the vote. The success of the FN, deeply concerned about social issues, especially crime and immigration, shocked the French elites, who prefer to sweep such issues under the rug. But a fifth of the nation cannot be ignored, and the big question is what will those voters do now?
Analysts on the scene report that many of these voters are tempted to reject Sarkozy, hoping that a Socialist victory will shake the establishment conservatives out of their comlacency. However, narrowing polls in the final days of the campaign suggest that some are now thinking that the socialist cure may be worse than the disease. While the French political landscape is quite different from ours, the tactical choice looks quite similar to the one facing American conservative voters in 2008. Many chose the first option, and we all know how well that turned out.