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The French Presidential Elections: a New President, a New Foreign Policy?

With only two candidates left in the running, the French are divided as to who is best fitted to become their new president: Nicolas Sarkozy or François Hollande. However, both Europe and the rest of the world wonder about the impact the next president of a leading state will have on their future.

May 1, 2012 - Horia-Victor Lefter - Articles and Commentary


On April 22th almost 80 per cent of French voters cast their vote in the first round of the presidential election. They had the choice between ten contestants out of which only two are now competing in the second round on May 6th: François Hollande, from the Socialist Party, and the outgoing president, Nicolas Sarkozy, representing the Union for a Popular Movement, a centre-right party.

This first round of the election underlined many lessons and has singled out this ballot in the history of French elections since the beginning of the 5th Republic in 1958. Moreover, the configuration drawn by the results may influence the strategy of the future president. Those among the former candidates could have an influence by means of electoral agreements on how the next president is going to lead French foreign policy.

For now, Hollande seems to be maintaining his position of favourite and could change the French leadership by winning the second round of the presidential election. However, Nicolas Sarkozy may also get a second five-year term, although this is unlikely according to many analysts. Whoever ends up as the next president, the question is whether there is going to be a change in French foreign policy, as the French are sceptical when talking about changement (“change” in French).

A strange first round

This first round of the presidential election was interesting for several reasons. The high turnout at the first ballot gives quite a clear image of the main tendencies within French society, although abstention in the second round is likely to be much higher. Even though the difference is not that important, Nicolas Sarkozy won 27.18 per cent of votes, while François Hollande secured the support of 28.63 per cent of the electorate. Thus, for the first time during the 5th Republic, an outgoing president has won a lower number of votes than one of the other candidates.

Besides these two main candidates, Marine Le Pen, an extreme-right candidate, now considers her party, the National Front, both the new right and the new opposition, by gaining 17.9 per cent of the vote primarily through anti-Sarkozy rhetoric. This confirms a nationalist tendency at a European level, with the National Front winning its biggest victory since 1958, even higher than when Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, opposed Jacques Chirac in the second round of the presidential election in 2002. Behind this success, however, is the intention of some to raise general awareness about the current situation: people are fed up with Sarkozy’s policy and have warned Hollande as to the attitude he should adopt.

In the centre, representing the Democratic Movement, François Bayrou won only 9.13 per cent of the vote, while Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Communist Party candidate, overtook him with 11.1 per cent, although this was lower than opinion surveys predicted. The other candidates, Eva Joly (the Green party), Nicolas Dupont-Aignan (Arise the Republic), Philippe Poutou (New Anticapitalist Party), Nathalie Arthaud (Workers Struggle) and Jacques Cheminade (Solidarity and Progress), received less than five per cent of the vote respectively, which doesn’t allow them to be reimbursed for their campaign expenses.

Now preparing for the second round of the presidential election, Hollande has already secured the support of both Joly and Mélenchon, while neither Le Pen nor Bayrou have the intention of supporting Sarkozy. Bearing in mind this electoral set-up, Hollande and Sarkozy’s plans could have or might still be changed accordingly. And this could be the same with their foreign policy strategy.

Europe in French strategy: To the left or the right?

Foreign policy was the great forgotten topic during the first round of the presidential election, and it seems to be a habit for candidates to avoid this topic during presidential campaigns. Some fear this is a sign that France doesn’t have much left to say to the world. Despite this, whichever of the two candidates is elected President of the Republic may have quite an impact, especially on Europe, as one of the ideas declared by many of the candidates during their public meetings was the recovery of French sovereignty in a technocratic Europe. But what about the two candidates still left in the running?

Sarkozy wants to open talks about the Schengen agreement in order to win some of the extreme-right voters by contesting what he calls the Europe passoire (European sieve – editor’s note). He is also in favour of maintaining the intergovernmental method of leading the European Union, while Hollande wants the President of the Commission to be elected by the European Parliament before any new institutional debate is opened. But is this proof that EU enlargement towards the East has divested France of its diplomacy control in Europe? The French-German engine had given this a new boost, but many now fear that Hollande might endanger Europe’s recovery out of the crisis. Russian policy in Europe might also be endangered.

A major project called the Mediterranean Union was launched during Sarkozy’s first presidency almost a year before Poland’s idea of the Eastern Partnership, although it has now been thwarted by an institutional breakdown. Sarkozy has now set the Near East as his next priority. He is at the core of a new foreign policy initiated in 2004 and enforced by French membership in NATO’s military structure in 2007. This was regretted by the Kremlin the first time, and didn’t prove to be entirely wrong as bilateral relations have changed compared to the precedent made by Chirac. Nevertheless, a certain continuity can be pointed out with the French president following de Gaulle’s idea of French greatness and personalising his strategy towards Russia by adding a commercial constituent to their bilateral relations. Moreover, Sarkozy’s interest in the Caucasus was partly justified through the considerable diaspora in France, presence at the election of Georgia’s president, and the calming down of the Russia-Georgian war in August 2008. He has also recently commemorated the Armenian genocide and promised to pursue the law in this matter.

Hollande also commemorated the Armenian genocide and promised to carry on with the law that had been previously rejected by the Constitutional Council. The question is, how will Hollande make this compatible with the “major partner” that Russia is and which “we need in order to build a more balanced world”? Hollande, meanwhile, has recommended that Russia pursue its efforts of democratisation. Enjoying the support of Russian Communists (probably thanks to Mélenchon), is Hollande going to focus on Eastern Europe, and in particular, Russia, in his foreign policy? This is not likely as this may be one more example of a consensus policy, maintaining himself thus in a discreet soft continuity. Many wonder if his foreign policy is going to resemble Sarkozy’s more than François Mitterrand’s, the first leftist president of the 5th Republic, and president for two terms between 1981 and 1995. One difference is that Holland is reluctant to support the anti-missile system, and there are, therefore, two consequences: a sad NATO and a happy Russia. But despite this reformist attitude of French foreign policy, François Hollande is widely seen as much more of a conventional personality.

This assumption of similarity between Hollande and Sarkozy is enforced by the differences they both have with former candidates within their own camp, both left and right. Thus the divisions in terms of foreign policy oppose Mélenchon to Hollande, the soft left; and, Sarkozy, the neo-conservative, to Le Pen, the sovereigntist. Unfortunately, there are no more occasions for debate, and therefore, one can only think that as far as the French foreign policy towards Eastern Europe and Russia is concerned, le changement n’est pas pour maintenant (“change is not for now” – Hollande’s contradictory catch phrase).

Horia-Victor Lefter is a freelance journalist and expert specializing in Central and Eastern Europe with a particular interest in Belarus, Eastern Partnership, the European identity and human rights. He is originally Romanian and currently resides in France.

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