The French vote “against”…

Journalist Fred Niel's says the first round of the French election shows France really cared about t

What a surprise! What surprise? Well, there isn’t one. That’s the surprise… No-one was expecting everything to go as predicted in the polls: Nicolas Sarkozy came on top in the first round, and will take on the second-placed Ségolene Royal in the final round of the presidential elections, on the 6th May.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, who took on Jacques Chirac in 2002 after pushing aside the Socialists’ Lionel Jospin, lost a million voters; and those who still voted for him were drowned in the sea of French citizens who took part in this election, thanks to an abstention rate of 16%, the lowest since the beginnings of the Fifth Republic. The result: he only got 11% of the votes, against 17% in 2002.

The shock of 2002 pushed many young people, traditionally more prone to abstention, to get their views heard in the polling booths in 2007. For the same reasons, many voters used a “vote utile” immediately, helping those who had a real chance of getting elected – Sarkozy, Royal, or Bayrou – instead of having the pleasure of voting for a “smaller” candidate (the Greens’ Dominique Voynet, for instance, has lost her lustre: only 1.57% of votes for her, compared to 5.25% for the ecologist candidate of 2002, Noel Mamere).

The high turnout proves that the French really cared about these elections. But if so many of them voted, it was often more to oppose a detested candidate, rather than to show enthusiasm for the ideas of someone else. It seemed vital to people to make a stance against a candidate who seemed too dangerous. A strong minority of socialists dislike Ségolene, who they consider barely competent, and too rigid; but they’ve decided to support her to prevent Nicolas Sarkozy, the ultimate bogeyman, from getting through to the Elysée. The vote for Bayrou is also a protest vote: the slogan “neither left nor right”, without quite knowing what would go in their place, contributed to his success. Finally, it’s with Sarkozy that we find a healthy dose of “committed” votes. If many vote for him because they loathe the socialists, for several voters he also embodies, in a positive way, the energy and the willpower which France is seen to lack today.

What now? According to an Ifop poll for the Journal du Dimanche, put together on the Sunday evening after the results were announced, Sarkozy would beat Royal 54% to 46%. That’s partly because many of the “centrist” voters for Bayrou will return to their roots, the right, in the same proportions: 54% of them say they will vote Sarko, 46% Sego. The polls, it turns out, were actually pretty reliable. Will they be this time too? Royal and Sarkozy are going to have an almighty scrap in the next two weeks in order to seduce the centrist electorate. Sarkozy, after seducing far-right votes with rhetoric about immigration and security, claimed on Sunday evening that he dreamed of a “fraternal France”, which would protect the weak. As for Royal, she made it clear she belonged to no “clan” (in other words: the Socialist Party and its old dinosaurs), throwing some coy glances towards the centrists. The battle has only just begun!

Frederic Niel is a French journalist based in Paris, who has worked for Reuters, Phosphore magazine and other news organisations.
Photo: Getty
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Theresa May's U-Turn may have just traded one problem for another

The problems of the policy have been moved, not eradicated. 

That didn’t take long. Theresa May has U-Turned on her plan to make people personally liable for the costs of social care until they have just £100,000 worth of assets, including property, left.

As the average home is valued at £317,000, in practice, that meant that most property owners would have to remortgage their house in order to pay for the cost of their social care. That upwards of 75 per cent of baby boomers – the largest group in the UK, both in terms of raw numbers and their higher tendency to vote – own their homes made the proposal politically toxic.

(The political pain is more acute when you remember that, on the whole, the properties owned by the elderly are worth more than those owned by the young. Why? Because most first-time buyers purchase small flats and most retirees are in large family homes.)

The proposal would have meant that while people who in old age fall foul of long-term degenerative illnesses like Alzheimers would in practice face an inheritance tax threshold of £100,000, people who die suddenly would face one of £1m, ten times higher than that paid by those requiring longer-term care. Small wonder the proposal was swiftly dubbed a “dementia tax”.

The Conservatives are now proposing “an absolute limit on the amount people have to pay for their care costs”. The actual amount is TBD, and will be the subject of a consultation should the Tories win the election. May went further, laying out the following guarantees:

“We are proposing the right funding model for social care.  We will make sure nobody has to sell their family home to pay for care.  We will make sure there’s an absolute limit on what people need to pay. And you will never have to go below £100,000 of your savings, so you will always have something to pass on to your family.”

There are a couple of problems here. The proposed policy already had a cap of sorts –on the amount you were allowed to have left over from meeting your own care costs, ie, under £100,000. Although the system – effectively an inheritance tax by lottery – displeased practically everyone and spooked elderly voters, it was at least progressive, in that the lottery was paid by people with assets above £100,000.

Under the new proposal, the lottery remains in place – if you die quickly or don’t require expensive social care, you get to keep all your assets, large or small – but the losers are the poorest pensioners. (Put simply, if there is a cap on costs at £25,000, then people with assets below that in value will see them swallowed up, but people with assets above that value will have them protected.)  That is compounded still further if home-owners are allowed to retain their homes.

So it’s still a dementia tax – it’s just a regressive dementia tax.

It also means that the Conservatives have traded going into the election’s final weeks facing accusations that they will force people to sell their own homes for going into the election facing questions over what a “reasonable” cap on care costs is, and you don’t have to be very imaginative to see how that could cause them trouble.

They’ve U-Turned alright, but they may simply have swerved away from one collision into another.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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