In the wake of the first round of France’s presidential election, Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande is on a mission to protect his momentum and ride it all the way to the Elysee Presidential Palace.
The opposition challenger won the first round on April 22, but with a much slimmer margin than was first thought, and under the shadow of an unprecedented electoral surge for the far-right National Front.
After taking 28.63% of Sunday’s votes to incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy’s 27.18% tally, Hollande has not missed a campaign beat, plunging back into a full schedule of rallies and television appearances. And to some observers’ surprise, he has rushed to address people who cast ballots for the far right.
National Front candidate Marine Le Pen gathered 17.9% of first round votes, a historic high for her anti-immigration party.
Speaking after results confirmed his status as the election’s frontrunner, Hollande said the far right’s extraordinary score demanded attention and a deeper understanding of the “anger” expressed by many French. Instead of feeling proud, Hollande said the French under Sarkozy had often felt “lowered” and “belittled”.
Front cover of Libération daily on Tuesday, April 24
The Socialist hopeful delivered a much clearer appeal in a front page interview published Tuesday in the left-leaning Liberation daily. "There is a part of Le Pen electorate that comes from the left… who are against privilege, against globalisation, against a Europe that doesn’t work. It’s up to me to convince them that it is the left that will defend them,” Hollande said.
While he reserved no compliments for Le Pen herself or her anti-immigration programme, Hollande’s interview drooled empathy for a “suffering electorate, made up of low-paid workers, manual staff and workers who feel like they’ve been abandoned,” and who turned toward the National Front.
“He wants to be the president of all the French and is projecting himself in that possibility,” said Michel Wieviorka, a French sociologist, supporter of Hollande and author of the book For the Next Left (Pour la prochaine gauche, Robert Laffont), “He should easily win the runoff, but to do so needs to pick up a fraction of Marine Le Pen’s first round votes.”
Hollande’s own camp has consistently bashed Nicolas Sarkozy for trying to appeal to the far right with the objective siphoning National Front votes. Marine Le Pen’s nearly 18% support may be irresistible fruit for Hollande, but the Socialist candidate could be playing with fire.
Game of percentages
According to Sylvain Crepon, a professor at Paris 10 University and an expert on the far right in France, Le Pen will likely tell her supporters to abstain in the second round, but it is uncertain if they will follow her instructions.
“About half of Le Pen’s followers, consider themselves right-wingers above all and will tend to vote for Nicolas Sarkozy to prevent a Socialist presidency,” Crepon explained. “Marine Le Pen has an interest in seeing Nicolas Sarkozy defeated. Her goal is to see the right in France implode and recover some of its members around the FN,” he added.
According to different opinion polls this week, 45% to 60% of people who voted for Le Pen will transfer their vote to Sarkozy in the runoff, while only 18% to 26% said they would throw their weight behind Hollande.
Those forecasts seemed to give Hollande the numbers he needs to be crowned the winner on May 6, but Alexandre Dezé, a professor of Political Science at Montpellier University and author of the book National Front: The Conquest of Power? (FN : La conquête du pouvoir ?, Armand Colin editions) warned that opinion polls were untrustworthy and prone to change.
For Dezé, Sarkozy was better prepared and more willing to charm National Front’s electorate. “Sarkozy will come out strong, we have already seen him employ elements of [former FN candidate] Jean-Marie Le Pen’s key campaign speech in 2002,” Dezé said.
“He is appealing to the poor and disenfranchised, calling for a “real” May 1 Worker’s Day rally, showing hostility to the media. It is really a complete and worrying revival of the National Front’s rhetoric,” the Montpellier professor added.
Disappointing the Left
While some analysts calculated Hollande’s chances of picking up some of Marine Le Pen’s sympathisers for the May 6 presidential duel, others challenged the overall wisdom of such a strategy. And it seemed Hollande was well aware of the danger of pushing away his natural allies on the left by trying to appeal to the far right.
“The mistake I will not make is, in reaching out to others, to forget our own,” Hollande told Liberation. “I am a socialist, I am the voice of the left, but I am addressing all the French because I want to be the president of unity.”
According to Wieviorka, there is little chance Hollande will spoil support within his own ranks. “Hollande will tell FN voters that he understands their message, and will ask them to trust him to solve their problems. But he is not going to change his own message.”
An April 22 survey by the French polling firm Ipsos revealed that while the demographics of the National Front’s electorate may be shifting slightly, the issues close to its heart remain unchanged.
Sixty-one percent of people who voted for Marine Le Pen on Sunday told pollsters that immigration was their top concern, while 44% of them said crime was the country’s most pressing problem.
The French sociologist also wondered how much Hollande or Sarkozy could really do in less than two weeks to win over voters. “Hollande has his votes on the left secured… I think people have already made their choice.”