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Kupchan: French Presidential Election Wide Open

Interviewee: Charles A. Kupchan, Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
April 17, 2007

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Charles A. Kupchan, CFR’s top Europe expert, says the French presidential election that kicks off this Sunday is “one of the most open in modern French history. It’s anybody’s to win.” Even though former interior minister Nicholas Sarkozy is ahead in the polls, he says it is quite possible that dark-horse candidate François Bayrou can pull off an upset, if leftist voters throw their weight to him rather than Ségolène Royal.

France has presidential elections coming up, which will be in two parts if nobody wins a big majority. The first round is Sunday, and there are four leading candidates and several other minor hopefuls. Could you give us a profile of who the four candidates are?

The front runner is Nicolas Sarkozy, who represents the ruling center-right party. He recently stepped down as minister of the interior to focus on the campaign, and essentially has billed himself as a strong leader, someone who will address the question of immigration in France and [who] sees maintenance of France’s national identity as his strong suit. He is the man to beat. He has been leading in the polls steadily for the last several weeks.

His main challenger at this point is Ségolène Royal, who represents the Socialist party, the main party of the center-left. She is someone who has risen up through the ranks. She served in the past as a junior minister and is a disciple of François Mitterrand, the late Socialist president. She has billed herself as a kinder and gentler alternative to Sarkozy, who has quite sharp edges. Her main platform is for the protection of France’s traditional welfare state and pension system. She has tried to portray more of a maternal image in comparison to Sarkozy’s hard-charging confrontational image. In the last month or so, because of discontent with both Sarkozy and Royal, two dark-horse candidates have started polling in the double digits. One is François Bayrou, who is the candidate of the Union for French Democracy, a small, centrist party. And the other is Jean-Marie Le Pen, who is the leader of the far-right National Front party. Bayrou is polling now a few points behind Royal, around 20 percent. And Le Pen is coming in roughly five points behind at somewhere around 15 [percent].

Say a few words about Le Pen and we can move on.

Le Pen is in some ways the bad boy of French politics. He is commonly portrayed and perceived as being racist, has been campaigning for decades on an anti-immigrant platform. He surprised everyone by making it to the second round in 2002, but was then soundly defeated by [current President Jacques] Chirac in the runoff, because leftist and rightist voters alike came together to defeat Le Pen.

Has most of this election campaign been on domestic issues, or as in the United States do foreign policy issues weigh in heavily?

The campaign has been almost exclusively on domestic issues—how to deal with Muslim immigration, what to do about France’s lagging economic growth, and how to stimulate growth in an era of globalization. On those issues, both main candidates talk in somewhat protectionist terms. These are not commonly the views of the center-right. But Sarkozy, as well as Royal, have been talking about protection, avoiding the layoffs that would come with the purchase of French companies, and the importance of jobs.

The big foreign policy issues of the day, the Middle East, what to do with the European Constitution, how to fix troubled Franco-American and Atlantic relations, have been getting very little airtime. They both have taken somewhat fuzzy positions on the constitution, with Sarkozy eventually saying, “Let’s come up with a much leaner and meaner core document without going back to a full referendum on the original constitution.” Ségolène Royal is more conservative on this issue and wants to take the constitution back, at some point, to the French people.

Now France, of course, had championed this constitution, and it was the French plebiscite in 2005 that really killed it in Europe, right?

In some ways, France had led the charge. It was former President Giscard d’Estaing that was the head of the body that drafted the constitution. And Jacques Chirac was one of its main backers. It’s fair to say that the “no” vote in 2005 was the event that started the current crisis into which the European Union has slid in the past two years.

Sarkozy is the only one of the candidates to visit the United States recently, is that right?

Sarkozy did come to the United States on a highly visible trip, and met with President Bush and other members of the Bush administration. He has since walked back from his close relationship with Washington in the last month or two, hemmed in by French public opinion, which remains quite skeptical of the Bush administration, in particular the war in Iraq. But there’s no question that Sarkozy breaks the mold of the traditional center-right leader. It’s fair to say he represents the end of traditional Gaullism. When Chirac leaves office soon it will be the end of an era.

As a journalist, I was brought up on Gaullism, and everything I knew about French-American relations always was pretty frosty, even though there was a lot of cooperation under the surface. So if Sarkozy got elected, do you anticipate it would be more like a German-U.S. relationship?

It would be something in between the frostiness of the past and the closeness of the U.S.-German relationship. Sarkozy definitely would try to improve the dialogue and the relationship between Paris and Washington, but he would still confront a foreign policy bureaucracy and a public that remains skeptical of the United States. You would not see the return to a Gaullist agenda and a Gaullist refrain. You wouldn’t hear, “It’s now time for Europe to emerge as a counterweight to America.”

On European policy, I gather Sarkozy is strongly opposed to Turkey’s admission to the European Union. Is that a popular position in France?

The trouble that France has had integrating its Muslims into the mainstream has made the issue of possible Turkish accession to the European Union a lightning rod. The violence that has broken out in the suburbs of the major cities has only made matters worse. Sarkozy in some ways is most famous for remarks he made during that violence. You may recall that he was quite hostile and disparaging. He called the youth “scum.” He said they should be cleaned with a fire hose. And this has led to a very estranged relationship between Sarkozy and the immigrant community. That’s his strength and his weakness. The traditional rightist voter backs him down the line on this issue. Leftist-center and left voters are afraid of him. They think he has dictatorial tendencies, and they fear he would cross the line in a way that could infringe on civil liberties.

How important is this election to the European Union?

This is a particularly important election because the project of European integration is today at a very fragile stage, in part because the French government has been in paralysis for two years. If Europe is to find its way out of the current impasse, it needs a strong French government leading the way. In some ways, who wins is less important than whether the winner can pull together a strong and effective government.

Any chance of someone like Mr. Bayrou pulling a surprise? He’s in the middle, right?

Yes, and I would say there is a chance for Bayrou to be the next president. The logic is the following: First, some 40 percent of the French electorate is still undecided. That’s huge. And this makes this particular election one of the most open in modern French history. It’s anybody’s to win. If there is continuing discontent with the frontrunners—and their campaigns have not been going particularly well, both of them have been making gaffes and slipping up—then there could be a protest vote for the center. And that would be Bayrou, although keep in mind that his party is quite small. He’s got something around twenty seats in the National Assembly.

How many in the National Assembly all together?

577.

So this is really a tiny party?

Yes, it is a very small party. The other complicating factor is the following: A center-left voter is today having to make a very difficult judgment. If they vote for their preferred candidate, Ségolène Royal, and the polls are indicative of the first round, then Royal and Sarkozy go through to round two. If that happens, it’s very likely Sarkozy will win. If the Royal voters instead were to vote for Bayrou, and Bayrou went through to the second round instead of Ségolène Royal, he’s the next president.

Oh really?

In a head to head race between Bayrou and Sarkozy, Bayrou comes out handily on top. So if your main objective is to stop Sarkozy from being president, even though you back Royal, you may be tempted to vote for Bayrou.

Okay, give me your choices. How do you think it’s going to come down on Sunday?

I would say that Sarkozy is likely to win the most votes and that between Royal and Bayrou, it’s going to be neck and neck.

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