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.
Getty
Show Hide image

The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

0800 7318496