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Les Yeux on France: Race on for the 2007 Elections

Les Yeux on France: The Race is on for France’s 2007 Presidential Elections

The three candidates for the Socialist Party’s primary election, as pictured in Les Echos, 4 October

As the Socialist Party gears up for its primary elections on the 16 and 23 November, the French media has gone into election mode. It is a transitional period in French politics, with a move towards what many are calling a more ‘American-style’ participatory model.

The reason behind this comparison is that the personality of the candidates looks set to play a key role, somewhat overshadowing ideology. The importance of the political parties themselves appears to be diminishing. Related to this is the emergence of the primary elections.

The first real primary election was held by the Socialist Party in 1995. It was held following serious infighting, to give some legitimacy to whichever candidate the party selected for the Presidential Elections. This year, the UMP (Union for the Presidential Majority), the Greens and even the Communist Party are joining the trend.

The conservative UMP’s primary is scheduled for 14 January 2007. So far, the only real contender is Nicolas Sarkozy, Minister for the Interior. If another credible candidate doesn’t emerge by January, then the vote will be more of a plebiscite to validate Sarkozy’s candidacy.

The Socialists, meanwhile, have three contenders: Ségolène Royal, Laurent Fabius and Dominique Strauss-Kohn. Fabius, a former Prime Minister, is the most experienced of the trio and has a solid support network within the Socialist Party. DSK is a social democrat, determined to ‘attack inequalities at the root’ rather then focus merely on redistribution. If it was the traditional system of an internal power struggle, it is Fabius, or, someone akin to Lionel Jospin or François Hollande, who would be put forward for the Presidency.

But it’s Royal who flourishes in the new environment. While no new-comer to the Socialist Party, she has the image of an ‘outsider’ which adds to her mass appeal. Many within the Party question her political leanings. Her economic and social orientations remain vague, as do her positions on most international questions. Royal is vocal on environmental issues, but on the other hand, advocates military detention for underage delinquents. Although clearly within the fold of the leftwing republican tradition, she does stray onto more conservative positions, particularly with regards to security and justice.

Both the UMP and the Socialist Party have had huge influxes of members. Within the Socialist Party, these new members are viewed suspiciously by the Party faithful and are associated with the rise of Royal. 90% have never been members of a political party before. There is scepticism over their allegiance to the Socialist cause.

Socialist Representative Eric Besson lamented in Les Echos that the Socialist Party is transforming ‘into an American-style democratic party: half-asleep most of the time, it comes to life solely to choose its candidate.’ Former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin has been vocal too on the need to respect the traditions and structures of the Socialist Party. But many of the existing members were also frustrated by the power struggles between Party leaders, and thus view the move to democratise as a positive step.

One issue that all candidates in 2007’s Presidential election will try to use to their advantage is France’s growing public debt, which has increased substantially over the last few years. The steps needed to address this problem will, naturally, depend on the political orientation of the candidate. Those on the right are calling for austerity and cutbacks in public spending, while those on the Left are quick to note that tax cuts have contributed to the problem.

Another hot topic is the deportation of those without proper documents, known as the ‘sans-papiers’. This issue is stimulating much debate on both sides of the political spectrum for and against the deportations. Particularly controversial are the cases where children’s education is being interrupted by the deportations. An organisation, ‘the Education Without Frontiers Network’, has been formed to advocate for the children involved.

Sarkozy, for one, has been making the most of the controversy. As Minster of the Interior, his tough attitude towards the ‘sans-papiers’ and on the debate over squatters risks alienating more moderate voters, but the focus on immigration, security and order appeals to many voters on the right. Indeed, a recent survey by Le Figaro Magazine and France 5 found that many supporters of the extreme right’s National Front Party are prepared to give Sarkozy their vote if Jean-Marie Le Pen doesn’t make it through to the second round in next year’s Presidential Elections.

Nicolas Sarkozy, UMP

The Minister has also said he disagrees with the traditional concept that international issues are the exclusive domain of the President, while the Prime Minister should govern strictly in the domestic realm. In the same interview with Le meilleur des Mondes, he said that France’s nuclear strategy needs to be re-examined to take the new threats of terrorism and proliferation into account. On Europe, he believes France’s relationship with the UK is as important as that with Germany.

One thing is for sure, Sarkozy is a polarising figure. The chance that he may become France’s President has succeeded in mobilising the Left. Even within the Right there are some who would prefer another candidate, such as Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. De Villepin was considered to have been knocked out of the race as a result of his failure to adequately consult students on the CPE (‘First Job Contract Law’) late last year. This failure led to widespread protests and de Villepin was forced to back down. But as the UMP’s primary elections are not until next January, there is a chance de Villepin may make a recovery. The public bickering between the Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior on a range of issues attests to that fact that there is still some sense of competition between the two.

Total smoking ban

A total ban on smoking in all public places became official last night. The law is likely to come into effect by September 2007 at the latest, based on the recommendations of a Parliamentary Committee. After the mass resistance he faced last year over the CPE, Prime Minister de Villepin was cautious to consult the various parties concerned before legislating.

Such a change is essentially be an extension of the Evin law of 1991, which placed many sites, including the workplace, out-of-bounds for French smokers. The total ban is in line with those already in place in many other European countries, which protect non-smokers from the effects of passive smoking. Many in the hospitality industry resist the changes, but their ability to influence the law remains to be seen.


Yasmine Ryan is a graduate of the University of Auckland, in Political Studies and French language. She is currently completing a Masters degree in International Journalism at Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Aix-en-Provence.


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