French presidential election: runners and riders

Your guide to the candidates in today's French election.

Ahead of the first round of the French presidential election this Sunday, here's a Staggers guide to the five main candidates.

How does the election work?

The presidential election is held over two rounds. The first round [22 April] is open to any candidate who has the written support of at least 500 local elected officials. Assuming that no one wins an absolute majority of votes, a run-off [6 May] is held between the top two candidates.

The winner then becomes president for the enusing term of office, which was reduced from seven years to five years following a 2000 referendum. Since the constitutional law of 23 July 2008, a president cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. François Mitterand and Jacques Chirac are the only Fifth Republic presidents who have served full two terms [14 years for the former, 12 years for the latter].

Nicolas Sarkozy (Union for a Popular Movement)

The man who entered office as the most popular president since Charles de Gaulle is now the most unpopular in the history of the Fifth Republic. Sarkozy’s extravagant personal life [he acquired the nickname “President Bling Bling” during his first months in power] has antagonised the electorate, while persistently high unemployment and the loss of France’s triple-A credit rating have damaged his economic credibility.

In a desperate attempt to claw back support, the French president has run an unashamedly demagogic campaign, pledging to halve immigration [he has said there are “too many foreigners” in the country] and to limit state benefits for legal migrants. Following National Front candidate Marine Le Pen’s lead, he has also exploited fears of growing Muslim influence, vowing to ban halal meat from state-school canteens.

To date, this strategy has met with some success. Polls now put Sarkozy neck-and-neck with  François Hollande in the first round, although the Socialist candidate retains a comfortable lead in a hypothetical run-off. The French president has portrayed his opponent as an irresponsible spendthrift, warning of a bond market revolt if Hollande is elected. Sarkozy, who recently hailed better-than-expected borrowing figures, has pledged to eliminate France’s 5.2 per cent budget deficit by 2016 through  €75 billion of spending cuts and  €40 billion of tax increases.

François Hollande (Socialist Party)

Tipped to become the first Socialist to enter the Élysée Palace since François Mitterand won re-election in 1988, Hollande has vowed to be “a normal president” in contrast to the exuberant Sarkozy. Traditionally viewed as a moderate social democrat, he has tacked to the left in response to a surge in support for far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Hollande has pledged to introduce a new top tax rate of 75 per cent on earnings above one million euros a year, to create 60,000 new education jobs and to reintroduce retirement at 60 for those who have worked at least 41 years. But he has also vowed to eliminate France’s budget deficit by 2017 and has promised to avoid any immediate nationalisations.

In February, Hollande visited London [where 72,000 French expatriates are registered to vote], where he met Ed Miliband, though not David Cameron. The Labour leader said he had been “very, very encouraged” by “the leadership” Hollande had shown on the issue of financial regulation. “I hope the French election can be a force for change in Europe and that this change can also happen in Britain,” he added. Hollande also used the trip to reassure the City of London that he was not “dangerous”, despite his description of finance as his “greatest adversary”.

The Socialists have a habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory but the polls continue to suggest that Hollande will triumph over Sarkozy in the final round.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Left Front)

The former teacher and ex-Socialist minister has emerged as the most popular far-left candidate for decades, with polls putting him in third place. Mélenchon, who represents the Left Front, a coalition of several parties including the Communists, having abandoned the Socialist Party in 2008, has called for a “citizen’s revolution” against the ruling rich and the establishment of a Sixth Republic in which the president will have less power and the national assembly more.

His policies include a cap on incomes over €360,000 a year, a 20 per cent rise in the minimum wage, a ban on profitable companies laying off workers, withdrawal from Nato and a referendum on the EU treaty.

A charismatic orator with a gift for populist rhetoric, Mélenchon has described Hollande as being as useful as the “captain of a pedalo” in a storm. He has also launched a series of attacks on far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, calling her a "filthy beast spitting hatred", a "bat" and a "dark presence".

Hollande has refused to negotiate on policy with the Left Front but should the party perform well in the legislative elections in June, he could be forced to offer Mélenchon a place in government.

Marine Le Pen (National Front)

The daughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen has attempted to shed the party’s racist image, styling herself as a more modern figure than her father, who was recently convicted of contesting crimes against humanity for saying the Nazi occupation of France was not "particularly inhumane".

Le Pen’s campaign has focused on what she describes as the “Islamisation” of France and on the alleged threat posed by migrants. She has pledged to reduce immigration to 5 per cent of its current level and to create a new ministry of the interior, immigration and secularism. Le Pen has also vowed to withdraw France from the euro [she describes the EU as “A European Soviet Union”] and to adopt protectionist economic policies.

In January, Le Pen was neck-and-neck with Sarkozy in the polls but her ratings have fallen as the French president has adopted increasingly hardline stances on immigration, the EU and halal meat. As a result, she will almost certainly not repeat her father’s 2002 feat of winning a place in the run-off, although some fear a late surge in support from voters wary of publicly supporting her candidacy.

Francois Bayrou (Democratic Movement)

The eternal “third man” of French politics has made his traditional centrist pitch, appealing to those voters for whom Sarkozy is too conservative and Hollande too radical. Bayrou’s campaign has emphasised the need for fiscal discipline [he has promised to cut spending by €50bn and find €50bn in new revenue], for greater private sector job creation and for further European integration.

Although a devout Catholic, Bayoru takes a liberal stance on issues such as gay rights and abortion. He has described Sarkozy’s focus on the alleged dangers of Islam as “poisonous”.

Bayrou took the French establishment by surprise in 2007 when he finished third in the first round and won nearly a fifth of the vote. On this occasion, however, he has struggled to keep pace with Mélenchon and Le Pen. But should Sarkozy narrow Hollande’s lead in the second round, he could yet end up as kingmaker.

Latest poll

First Round

François Hollande 27%

Nicolas Sarkozy 26%

Jean-Luc Mélenchon 17%

Marine Le Pen 15%

Francois Bayrou 11%

Second Round

François Hollande 57%

Nicolas Sarkozy 43%

Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon delivers a speech during a campaign meeting. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour must learn the secrets of the Scottish Conservatives

 A Faustian pact with the SNP is not the short cut back to power some in Labour think it is. 

If Labour wants to recover as a political force, in Scotland or nationally, it must do the hard work of selling voters on a British, progressive party. But some in both the SNP and Labour sense a shortcut - a "progressive alliance"

Progressives might be naturally cautious about taking advice from a Conservative, but anybody covering Scottish politics for a Tory website is very familiar with life in the doldrums. And there are a few things to be learnt down there. 

First, as Scottish Labour members will tell anyone who listens, the SNP talk an excellent progressive game, particularly on any area where they’re in opposition. But in government the Nationalists have simply navigated by two stars - differentiating Scotland from England to the greatest extent possible, and irritating as few people as possible, all in order to engineer support for independence.

Independence itself would, according to nearly all objective assessments, involve a sharp adjustment in Scottish public expenditure, and painful consequences for those who depend on it. Yet this does little to dent the SNP’s enthusiasm. All their political reasoning is worked out backwards from that overriding goal.

There is no reason to believe that the nationalists' priorities at Westminster would be any different. Joining the SNP in "progressive alliance" would be a poison pill for Labour. 

For the larger party would be in a double bind. Govern cautiously, respecting the relative weakness of the left in England and Wales, and the SNP will paint its coalition partner as "Red Tory", taking credit for whatever was popular in Scotland and disowning the rest. 

But drive through a more radical programme with SNP votes (presumably after dismantling "English Votes for English Laws"), and risk permanently alienating huge sections of the electorate south of the border. Those Miliband-in-Salmond’s-pocket pictures would be just the start.

Scottish Labour is familiar with the reality of the SNP in power. But that's not to say it isn't making its own mistakes. Too often, it tries to strike the same sort of bargain with small-n nationalism.

Constitutionally-focused politics isn’t kind to social democrats, as Irish Labour will tell you. So it’s clear why Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale would wish to believe that there is a split-the-difference constitutional position which would, as this article has it, offer “an escape from the black and white world of referendum politics”.

But incantations about "federalism" and "home rule" aren’t going to save Labour. They’re an attempt to appeal to everybody, and are neither intellectually nor politically adequate to the challenge facing the party.

Holyrood is already one of the most powerful sub-state legislatures on earth, so "federalism" is at this point mostly a question of how England is run. If “more powers” were actually going to stop nationalism, we’d have seen some evidence of it during the last 20 years.

And as political tactics go, it won’t woo back voters whom the SNP have persuaded that independence is a progressive cause, but it will alienate voters who care about the union.

Here, Scottish Labour should learn from the Conservatives. The leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, realised that voters were always going to have better non-Conservative options on the ballot paper than the Tories, so there was no way back that didn’t involve selling voters on Conservatism. A new Conservatism in important respects, but nonetheless a British, centre-right party.

Labour too must recognise that they are never going to be a more appealing option than the SNP to voters who believe separatism is a good idea. Instead, they must sell voters on what they are: a British, centre-left party. The progressive case for Britain, and against independence, is there to be made.

Labour needs to sell the United Kingdom, and the Britishness underlying it, as a progressive force. As long as left-wing voters remain attached to independence and the SNP, despite all the implications, Labour will be marginalised and the union in danger. 

Henry Hill is assistant editor of ConservativeHome, and has written their Red, White, and Blue column on Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland since 2013. Follow him @HCH_Hill.