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The Presidential election in France.

The first round of the French Presidential election will take place on the 22 April. If no candidate manages to achieve 50% of the vote (there are 12 names on the ballot), the top two will face another round, the really significant round, on the 6th May. What is at stake for France? What are the consequences of the election for Europe?

Traditions die hard in France. This is a country in which, despite the Revolution, the French sense of administrative action as the basis for social change, renewed by socialism and protectionism in the modern era, still has a hold on the political system and on attitudes towards the market economy. Dress it up whatever way you will, France has a preference for administrative action, and associated administrative and hence political elites, over that of a freely functioning economy. There is nothing new about economic and political comparisons with ‘England’. Voltaire made them; the early French economists during and after the Revolution made them, debating the pros and cons of Adam Smith whilst searching for a French model. Political society still makes them, though the current ‘English’ model (developed essentially by Margaret Thatcher) is evaluated with suspicion and even hostility despite its long-term success (gained by short-term and acute pain) in generating employment, income, productivity and growth. Young unskilled workers and young professionals, facing unemployment or career entrapment in unsatisfactory jobs have moved and continue to move to London, a city that has a voracious appetite for job seekers. British firms are becoming pre-eminent in Europe. Many in France look upon the British model of economic flexibility (seen as no job security) and service-sector and financial sector growth (seen as risky and exploitative) with apprehension. But for all the hostility towards the British model, and to any hint of the idea of a necessary Thatcherite reform, France, with the slowest growth rate of any developed market economy, is facing a crisis over its economic future. This is recognized by all of the three credible front runners (it is hard to imagine Le Pen getting very far as a potential fourth, despite the issue of immigration) in the election. Curiously there has been, if press reports are anything to go by, no dominant theme emerge in the election thus far. This in itself may be evidence of the extent of the confusion and malaise that there is in France at the moment. France and its state-oriented economy are both out of touch with the wider world.

The three front runners are: Nicolas Sarkozy, Ségolène Royal and François Bayrou. The first round (a round which the French use to express their discontent) may throw-up Le Pen as a final contender but this seems unlikely.

Nicolas Sarkozy is campaigning on the idea of change and of facing up to the need for economic reform (and to its unpleasant side which will mean adjusting the size of the state budget and hence the prospect of state-sponsored unemployment). He was even prepared to take his message to those French citizens who have opted to live and work in London. Sarkozy sees himself as an instrument of change though he was quick enough to defend Airbus when it was in trouble. He has if anything the clearest grasp of the economic problems that France faces and he is not afraid of putting his reformist points across. Sarkozy would also aim to streamline European administration and argue against full Turkish membership. He appears tough but is he as tough as Thatcher was? Is this what the French want? He seems essentially to be a compromise between the French administrative tradition (that reaches back before the Revolution) and the market. Even that compromise may prove to be too much for the electorate.

Ségolène Royal is the hope of the Socialist Party. She won the nomination in her party by a huge margin. Her campaign has roamed over a number of areas, calling upon aspects of the French identity that some have found surprising from a socialist candidate. Royal is seen as a candidate with strong convictions and her candidacy is a challenge to male-dominance in French political life. Of all the campaigns, Royal’s is the one that appears to shift ground more than most. Royal does not lack personal drive but her message is a confused one, manipulating too many symbols in an effort to reach beyond her Party and to the French public. It is hard for an outsider to see how Royal could achieve reform and renewal in economic life. Royal recently clarified her ambiguous position on Turkish membership by declaring her support and arguing for unity between the civilizations.

François Bayrou is growing in popularity. He is the leader of a small centrist party (Union for French Democracy). He is appealing for an approach to political life based on a government of national unity. What he wants is a ‘peaceful revolution’ in politics and by this he means throwing out of power the two parties that have dominated the political scene for twenty-five years. Although claiming to be new, he is also an experienced politician. He would oppose European extension and would say ‘no’ to Turkey. He looks to reform but reform through administrative efficiency gains and moderation of government spending rather than a dramatic re-assertion of the market. It is generally held that he appeals to the section of the population who feel estranged from the political elite in Paris. He is looking for a harmonious and essentially progressive approach to economic and political life but this tends to leave his message somewhat difficult to define.

What is at stake is the future direction of the French economy, France’s self image and French influence in the EU. At this stage, Sarkozy is widely seen as the front runner with the distinct possibility that Bayrou may just beat Royal to second place. Whatever the outcome, the admininstrative tradition of the French state is more lilkely to be modified than expunged.