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France's next vote

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus   |   April 24, 2012 at 5:48 AM   |   Comments

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PARIS, April 24 (UPI) -- The first question arising from the first round of the French presidential election was how the markets would react. They answered in the negative, knocking close to $150 billion off the value of European stocks.

The second question was whether Sarko or Flanby will get the prize in the May 6 second round.

Sarko is of course the incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy, the hyperactive and endlessly yapping little terrier of French politics. He is widely disliked, which is why he won just 27.2 percent of first-round votes. One German commentator put it well when he suggested that the French people have the feeling that for the past five years they have been locked in an elevator with Sarko -- and he never shut up.

Flanby (a very bland and milky French dessert) is the nickname for the Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande. A backroom boy in the party machine who has never been a minister, the most interesting thing about him is the determination he has shown for this campaign. He lost 30 pounds in weight last year to look more dynamic and he has ruthlessly suppressed the jovial, joke-cracking personality he displays in private in order to appear more serious and presidential.

Flanby got just 28.6 percent of the vote and while the polls suggest he should win in the runoff, when he and Sarko go head-to-head, it may not be so simple.

There are three reasons for this:

The first is the warning from the markets. The French people aren't idiots. They know that with the euro crisis still festering there are evident risks in electing a Socialist who wants to raise the minimum wage, push back the retirement age to 60 and raise the maximum tax rate to 75 percent.

The second reason to suggest that Sarko shouldn't be ruled out is that there is at least one (as Flanby wants, or maybe three as Sarko demands) televised TV debate to come. Most of France will tune in. With nearly four out of five French voters turning out to cast their ballots last Sunday, this is an electorate that takes its civic duties seriously. A good performance by Sarko could swing the vote.

The third reason that Flanby could lose his lead is that French has just reaffirmed the crisis of two-party politics that we see all across the democratic world. The Tea Party in the United States, the coming of coalition government to Britain and of Mario Monti's technocrats in Italy all point to the way that the traditional system of two political parties seems less and less capable of reflecting the new social and economic patterns in which we no longer have an industrial working class and most voters see themselves as middle class.

France's two main parties won just less than 56 percent of the vote in Sunday's election. The second round will thus be determined by the way the other 44 percent of voters decide to cast their next ballots.

The parties of the right -- Sarko and Marine Le Pen's National Front and a smaller nationalist group -- won 47 percent of the vote. The parties of the left -- Flanby and the Greens and Jean-Luc Melenchon's Left Front -- won 43 percent.

The balance of almost 10 percent is held by Francois Bayrou's centrist MoDem party, which could go either way. But since Bayrou himself comes from the center-right UDF party that was the election vehicle for the moderate conservative President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the right may have a modest advantage, strengthened by the fear that the markets will react badly against a Flanby victory.

This means that Sarko should find it easier to get to the 50.1 percent required for victory. Although National Front voters have turned their backs on Sarko in the first round, polls suggest that some 60 percent of them will vote for Sarko, 20 percent will vote for Flanby and 20 percent are likely to abstain.

Moreover, there is no guarantee that Melenchon's hard-left voters will vote for the milquetoast politics of Flanby. Many will abstain or just go fishing. Hollande should get most of the 2.3 percent of the Greens who voted for Eva Joly, since he wants to curtail France's nuclear power program. But this is a policy that is likely to lose Flanby more votes than it wins, not least from labor union members.

Broadly speaking, the mathematics of the vote suggests the May 6 runoff election is Sarko's to lose. And any economic shocks in the next 10 days, whether from Spain's difficulties or further euro crises, are likely to help Sarko rather than Flanby.

Francois Hollande, therefore, faces a challenging 10 days, helped mainly by the way he appears to be a more engaging personality than Sarko and doesn't come with Sarko's baggage of being dubbed the 'bling-bling president' who liked to hobnob with the rich. The TV debate will be pivotal.

Even after the presidential elections, the parliamentary election follows within a month. We could well see a new period of cohabitation, with a president of one party and a prime minister and government from the other side.

That would make a coherent response to the economic crisis even more problematic.

© 2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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