Ségo: can she yet win?

Observations on the French elections

The electoral odds stand against Ségolène Royal. Yet she has sailed over the first big hurdle in her pursuit of the French presidency and there remains but a single rival to beat. It's springtime in French politics, and who knows what further energies the sap will revive in a recharged electorate?

To be sure, her conservative UMP opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy, has strong momentum after coming out on top with an impressive score (31.2 per cent) in the first round of the presidential elections on 22 April, but Sarko's success at least clarifies Ségo's last-ditch task. Calmly, serenely, she must convince voters that her policies (a step to the left of Blairism) will boost France more surely than his (two steps to the right); and that the man she now faces in a run-off for president on 6 May represents a perilous risk.

This is a stiff challenge, but not insuperable. Certainly, the arithmetic doesn't look favourable for the Socialist madonna. Throw all her first-round votes (25.9 per cent) into a basket with those of the small, eliminated candidates on her left, and they total hardly more than 36 per cent. So where will the further 15 per cent she needs come from? Very few new votes will come from the usual pool of first-round abstainers and undecideds, because on 22 April the electorate voted with greater gusto than in any poll for president since 1965, when General de Gaulle created the modern presidency. It was as if the French rediscovered democracy; they queued to vote, buoyed by "new" faces and the prospect of radical change.

While Ségolène can take credit for snapping voters out of their indifference - she has campaigned purposefully to re-engage their interest - the 85 per cent turnout she helped generate ironically leaves her with scant reserves of possible additional support.

Nor can she count on help from supporters of an embittered Jean-Marie Le Pen on the extreme right, whose 10.4 per cent tally inspired his testy political exit line: "I have been wrong about the French."

Royal's hopes lie with the puffy centre - a force inflated by the UDF's François Bayrou (18.6 per cent), an ambitious moderate parading as an honest Pyrenean ploughman, also eliminated. Pollsters suggest Bayrou's big haul splits fairly evenly between Sarko and Ségo, with a small advantage to her. That could widen considerably if she meets the tasks confronting her in the intensive fortnight of campaigning leading up to 6 May.

Both camps are suing hard for the Bayrou vote, previously situated on the centre right but now swollen by centre-left adherents. The bait is to desist from obstructing him in building a significant new social-democratic party in the parliamentary elections that follow hard on the presidential poll. Ségolène has asked the elusive centrist to join her in a public debate, clearly hoping to show they can share the same house. Strange things have come to light in this fascinating contest: many more people loathe Sarko with a passion than love him, and the same goes for her. That explains why Bayrou might well have become president had he squeezed into one of the top two places in the first round.

It is easier, on the face of it, for Mme Royal to play up the "hate factor" that afflicts her rival than vice versa. The main reason why anti-Royalists positively dislike her, aside from her leftish stance, is that she lacks obvious warmth and can come across as bossy and arrogant. Royal is very far from the silly goose that the right-wing press in France and abroad, seizing on the odd malapropism, has sought to make her. She has remained serene throughout an arduous campaign, divorcing herself from Socialist doctrine - and, indeed, from her party's leadership - to present herself as a "free woman".

Sarkozy, by comparison, is an open target. There is a vehement and widespread Tout sauf Sarko! (anything but Sarko) spirit about, particularly among the young, which Bayrou for one has done nothing to discourage. In this reading, Sarkozy is a brute: a man liable to blow a fuse, master of neither himself nor his language. The forecast in tout sauf Sarko quarters is that if he becomes president, there'll be hell to pay in the form of big social disturbances of the kind at which France excels. Why? Because the young are against him and because he places business over human interests. This is mostly nonsense, but curiously it is a prediction shared by Sarko's strongest supporters, and to turn up the volume on it is more than Ségo's camp can resist. That Le Pen's demise results from a far-right rush to a beckoning Sarkozy only serves to substantiate the dangerous image.

So, Ségolène toasts her first-round success by rephrasing her economic policy, with a pledge to "move France ahead without brutalising our country". It may be the sort of assault that moves hearts in the single head-to-head debate between the two contenders on national television, set for 2 May. This is a showdown that Sarkozy - an easy, talented communicator despite the hearty dislike he arouses - must be favourite to win, and that the heroine of the left cannot afford to lose. It looks as though she will need not only to take the bulk of Bayrou's votes but also to steal some from Sarkozy himself.

Truly an uphill task, especially as female voters have already given Sarkozy a definite edge in their first-round favours. But there is electricity in the air and Socialist optimists who like to look back compare her quandary to that of their champion François Mitterrand in 1981, when his electoral sums added up poorly against Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. Mitterrand none the less took the presidency and held it for 14 years. "Politics isn't sums," insists an old favourite of his, Jack Lang, now a devoted Royalist. "In politics, two and two don't make four. They make five . . . or three."

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.