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The split between the two Frances

Last updated on: May 16, 2007 09:41 IST

On May 16, a new French President will occupy the Elysee Palace.

Ten days earlier, forty million French voters, glued to their television sets, discovered behind a slowly fading tricolour national flag, the face of Nicolas Sarkozy who appeared standing in front of a photo of his new residence.

He had been elected with 53 per cent of the votes. Segolene Royal was far behind with only 47 per cent. For once, the surveys have been absolutely correct; after the first round, they had all predicted the victory of the Rightist candidate with the correct percentage. Three minutes later, Royal gave a press conference. Speaking in front of thousands of her supporters, she conceded defeat, but appealed to her 17-million electorate to "continue the struggle"; the "French political landscape has been changed for ever", she declared.

The French presidential elections are held through universal suffrage in a two-round process. On April 22, French electors went first to the polls to select two candidates for the May 6 'final' which decided who would be the President of France for the next five years.

The election is run in such a way that any French national can be a candidate, provided he or she can collect 500 signatures of elected representatives. As a result, the 12 candidates represented not only large political parties but also different lobbies of French society.

Apart from the three main contenders (Sarkozy, Royal and the centrist Bayrou), the extremes of the political spectrum participated. It included three Trotskyites, a Communist, a Green and an anti-MNCs, a campaigner for hunters' rights, a Catholic nationalist and an ultra-nationalist.

What were the stakes? The voters' main concerns were down-to-earth: Employment and immigration, two closely linked issues, then education, social security and environment were some of the questions motivating the electorate. India, or for that matter, foreign policy in general was far away from the candidates' pre-occupations.

Surprisingly the main candidates agreed on one point: France needed to look at itself. There was a general admission that the new President had to initiate deep societal changes. The reason is simple: the employment scene in France is far too rigid, and the social charges too heavy, killing the dynamism of the nation's economy.

One subject reflects perfectly the differences between the candidates. Royal wanted to continue with the 35-hour a week scheme for the French workers, while Sarkozy promised to make the French work more, thereby creating more wealth and consequently solving the problem of chronic unemployment, slow growth (hardly two per cent), as well as related problems of deficit in the social security budget and the trickier issue of unrest in large city suburbs. Royal believed that reorganising the working hours, redistributing the wealth and providing more training would be enough for the economy to come out of its gloominess.

For an outsider, it is easy to grasp that France can not compete with countries like China or India which work much more for much less, though not all the candidates were ready to admit that globalisation and delocalisation were here to stay and that society had to adapt itself to this new paradigm; a less 'social' economic system like in the UK or even Germany has undoubtedly fared much better.

Another interesting aspect to this election was the arrival of a new force on the political stage. Traditionally the electorate is split on political party lines. Historically, the French have voted either for the main Rightist party (this time represented by Nicolas Sarkozy) or the main Leftist one (today Royal's Socialists).

The great novelty of round I was that the candidate representing a small centrist party could have made it to round II. Why? People are tired with traditional party politics which have not been able to deliver the goods and solve France's burning issues.

Francois Bayrou, the Centrist candidate collected 19 per cent of the vote during round I, not far from the 25 per cent of Ségolène Royal. It demonstrated that many electors preferred to vote for a person in whom they have confidence, rather than an ideology.

In round I, a whopping 84 per cent of the registered voters cast their votes in favour of one of the 12 candidates. One could hardly imagine from India that the election of a President could raise so much passion. Only once before in the history of the French Republic had voters participated so massively; it was in 1965 when Charles de Gaulle became the first President of the Republic elected by universal suffrage.

Another feature of this round was the marginalisation of smaller and extremist parties. For example, the tally of the candidate of the Communist Party of France was its worst in the last 50 years; the candidate did not cross the two per cent bar; the Green lady candidate had a worse score.

The other big surprise was the poor result of Le Pen, the ultra-nationalist who made it to round II in 2002 against President Jacques Chirac. This time, he finished fourth with only 10 per cent of votes, his lowest score ever. Analysts believe that Nicolas Sarkozy, from the beginning the favourite in the race and leader of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement), has attracted many of Le Pen's electors.

Sarkozy's 'tough guy' image and the socialist supporters of the pretty Royal eventually took them to round II. Between the two rounds, Bayrou was the most wooed citizen of France. Sarkozy and Segolene Royal understood that Bayrou's supporters were to arbitrate the final.

Interestingly, this huge vote-bank forced both candidates to make 'openings' and 'concessions'; in other words, to change their unyielding ideological stand. Neighbouring Germany under Angela Merkel has shown the way and is economically recovering remarkably well.

The week before May 6, both candidates realised that France has to find new ways if it desires to remain a nation that counts in the 21st century world. The voters were also conscious of the critical years ahead and they again overwhelmingly went to the urns (86 per cent).

After the results, millions celebrated the victory of Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, while Royal's 'defeat' seemed to deprive millions of others of the hope of a better tomorrow. France was divided into two camps.

Probably sensing the mood of the people, in his acceptance speech, the new President, popularly known as 'Sarko' declared that he aspires to be the President of all the French. The poor are unwilling to believe him -- hundreds of cameras followed him to Le Fouquets', one of the most expensive restaurants on the Champs Elysees, where he went with his family and friends for dinner to celebrate his victory and where he spent the night. This first 'action' as the elected President as well as his 'retreat' on a rich businessman's yacht in Malta was not appreciated by Royal's camp and even by many of his own supporters.

The split between the two Frances was reflected in the editorials of the two main papers. The Figaro (pro-Sarkozy) headlined on the full page 'Outstanding Victory' while the pro-Royal Liberation just wrote 'Tough' (meaning 'tough' for the nation to have such a President).

The fact remains that the majority of the French have reposed their confidence in Sarkozy to inject a new dynamism into the French economy. In his campaign, he promised to make the French work more for them to create greater wealth. Undoubtedly it was a vote for change, a majority of the voters have seen in the new President (despite the incumbency factor) a leader who will be able to take the nation towards a brighter and more dynamic future.

While both gave the impression that France had a presidential system a l' Amercaine during the campaign, with the head of the state possessing very large executive powers, it is not quite the case. The French Constitution, known as the 'Fifth Republic', is a mixed arrangement with a President having some executive powers and a prime minister nominated by the President heading a government responsible to Parliament.

To avoid the unpleasant situation of a President belonging to a party and the prime minister to another, the presidential mandate was reduced from seven to five years in 2002 and has been made to coincide with the term of the National Assembly for which elections are to be held next month.

Sarkozy will thus have to wait for the June election to start implementing the economic reforms he has promised. Only then will he be able to prove if he is a "Thatcher in pants".

Sarkozy often repeated during his campaign that "if they (the UK) have done it, we too can do it". During the next few months, if he can be a French Blair (barring Iraq), his promises could become the foundation of France's new economic policy.

The most enduring factor of this election was however the extraordinary interest generated by the presidential election. Whether you opened a newspaper, listened to FM radio, watched the television or began a discussion with friends or by-passers, the theme was invariably Sarko or Sego, their life, their belief, their chances to make it. This probably reflects the deep uneasiness of a nation caught resting while the world around is changing.

Claude Arpi