French abstainers decide

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus   |   April 9, 2012 at 6:30 AM   |   0 comments

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TOULOUSE, France, April 9 (UPI) -- And the winner is … the don't cares.

The new French fear is that more voters abstain than vote for either of the two main candidates in the presidential elections just two weeks away.

The latest poll for the TF1 channel gives incumbent French President Nicolas Sarkozy a first-round lead with 28.5 percent, followed by the Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande with 26 percent. But 32 percent of voters tell pollsters they won't bother to give up part of their Sunday to vote.

This would be a record. Over the past five decades, the abstention rate in France has usually ranged 16-22 percent, with a peak of 28.4 percent in 2002. Five years ago, when Sarkozy won the presidency, abstentions plunged to a low 16.2 percent.

This is remarkable: More than four out of five eligible French voters turned out to cast ballots, whereas in Britain and the United States congratulate themselves if two-thirds of the voters go to the polls. But this year, the French seem to be acting more like the Americans, although with unemployment of more than 10 percent and the euro still in crisis it should be a crucial election.

How can this be? There is no shortage of issues and no shortage of firebrand politicians. Sarkozy himself is the most-disliked French president since opinion polls began, although many of those who are irritated by his bouncy and aggressive personality respect his political achievements.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, wants an end to immigration and for France to withdraw from the euro currency, issues which ought to make for a lively campaign. But she has failed to catch fire. And the main challenger to Sarkozy, Hollande, is a low-key and owlish intellectual who seems intent on coasting to the presidency on Sarkozy's unpopularity.

Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the Front de Gauche (the Left Front), proposes a maximum income of 360,000 euros ($471,000). Any money above that would be taxed at 100 percent. He also proposes to raise the minimum wage 60 percent to $2,600 a month and to require that no employer can be paid more than 20 times the salary of his lowest-paid worker.

Melenchon is the main exception to the generally low energy level of the campaign, getting 50,000 people to his rally at the Place de la Bastille in Paris to reanimate the egalitarian spirit of the French Revolution that stormed the old Bastille prison fortress in 1789. A mesmerizing and eloquent speaker who demolished Le Pen on one of the TV talk-shows, he is a former Socialist minister and now a member of the European Parliament.

His coalition of the far left, including the old Communist Party, has jumped from around 3-15 percent in the latest polls. Now he is seen as a threat to the center-left Francois Hollande, whom he dismisses as "a captain of a pedal-boat heading out into the storm."

"Hollande is now a hostage to Melenchon," Sarkozy charged over the weekend, claiming that Melenchon's revival of the far left would force Hollande to make concessions to them to win their votes in the second round. Le Pen sneers at Melenchon "just a fig-leaf for the Communists."

There are two rounds French presidential elections. In the first, on April 22, anyone can stand who has 500 signatures from among France's 23,000 mayors. In the second round, two weeks later, the two front-runners face off.

At the moment, Hollande still leads Sarkozy by about 6 points in opinion polls on voting intentions in the second round. The big question is what proportion of Melenchon's votes Hollande will get. If he gets them all, along with his own vote and the votes of the Green Party, Hollande still falls short of the 50 percent of the vote he will need. He will have to draw some votes from the centrist candidate, Francois Bayrou.

By contrast, Sarkozy can expect to draw a lot of Front National votes in the second round, along with most of Bayrou's votes. But even if he gets most of their support, he still will have trouble reaching the 50 percent plus one required to win.

So the key to victory will be whether Sarkozy and Hollande can persuade some of the first-round abstainers to turn out and vote in the second round. And since it looks likely to be a close-run thing, the TV debates between the two men in the second round will probably be decisive.

A wild card could change matters, such as another of the Islamist shootings in Toulouse last month which allowed Sarkozy to appear as tough, presidential and effective when the killer was caught and killed. Another euro crisis is possible, after Spain's difficulty last week in raising new loans and the Italian government tough battle to enact reforms.

Sarkozy is already trying to play the euro card, warning that the financial markets would instantly punish France and the euro if Hollande were to win. Hollande by contrast is playing populist, promising to cut his official salary by 30 percent if he wins, and charging that in personal and travel expenses, Sarkozy has been the most extravagant and costly President in French history.

Whether that kind of jibe brings the would-be abstainers out to vote will be the key to France's future.

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