Today, France goes to the polls in the first of two ballots to select its next President; polls suggest that incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy and socialist Francois Hollande will go head to head in the run-off on Sunday 8 May.
The Presidental election and subsequent legislative elections are a real challenge for Liberals. Our sister party, the Mouvement Democrate (MoDem) led by Francois Bayrou has struggled during this campaign. Bayrou, a popular former Education Minister, has lost momentum in an environment where populism and a breathtaking level of denial has characterized the debate.
‘Bling Bling’ Sarkozy has become a deeply unpopular figure due to his penchant for extravagant behaviours in office. Banging the populist drum, he set out his political stall for the upcoming campaign to Le Figaro magazine at the beginning of February. His priorities, he explained, included opposing gay marriage and adoption as well as euthanasia. This was not a President ready to face up to the heavy responsibilities of economic reform.
Francois Hollande, his Socialist opponent has done little more to address coherently the economic challenges for France. His centerpiece policy of creating 60,000 new teaching jobs in the education system and hints that he would reduce the retirement age from 62 to 60 defy the era of austerity.
Marine Le Pen’s attempts to ‘modernise’ the Front National have been proven hollow. Her decision to attend a ball in Vienna organized by the Austrian far right on the 67th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was disgraceful; she has reverted to type.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far left Front de Gauche has been brazen, wrapping himself in the flag of the French revolution, calling for a citizens’ insurrection and a renegotiation of EU treaties. Surging in the polls, Mélenchon looks set to come third in today’s election.
For Liberals in France, this has been a desperate contest where the big issue of the day, the economy, has been ignored. Bayrou has faced a tough fight. Bluff, like our own Vince Cable, he has been unique in talking of the need for deep cuts. The Economist observed Bayrou was the only candidate focusing his campaign on the real issues on which the future of France depends. Yet, his message, and campaign, doesn’t appear to have resonated with the electorate.
With the prospect of losing in today’s first round vote, Bayrou will be focusing on bolstering MoDem’s future in the realignment of the political landscape in the wake of a Sarkozy defeat. This will present an opportunity to build the liberal centre.
Whatever the outcome for MoDem and French Liberalism today and in the legislative elections in June, the electorate will surely remember that it was Bayrou – and only he – who spoke of the hard decisions that France now faces. Liberals rarely shirk from hard realities, and that will serve our French friends well in the long term.
* Andrew Wigley is a public affairs professional who has lived and worked in the US and the Middle East. He began his career working for the Liberal Democrats, first in London and then Brussels. He previously managed community and public affairs for an oil company with facilities near In Amenas.