Thursday, April 19, 2012

Looking Ahead to Sunday

Polling will soon be blacked out, so we are near our final glimpse at what the pollsters think the French will do on Sunday. The candidates fall neatly into four tiers: Hollande and Sarkozy virtually neck and neck at about 28 apiece, give or take a point; Mélenchon and Le Pen also neck and neck at around 15; Bayrou by himself in the third tier at 10; and a fourth tier comprising the rest of the field, who will split 4 or 5 percent of the vote among them, so they are non-factors.

So the serious cleavage this year is not between the right and the left but between the first and second tiers. The second-tier candidates both reject the status quo vis-à-vis globalization, Europe, the euro, financial capitalism, etc. They are resisters. The first-tier candidates, despite their differences of emphasis, are adapters. And Bayrou calls them all on dishonesty: he (rightly) insists that the first-tier candidates are not coming clean about their commitments while assailing the second-tier candidates for the irrealism of their proposals.

The fly in the ointment is the large number of undecided voters and self-declared abstainers who may in the end decide to go to the polls: as many as 32% of the the voters fall into this group, an unusually high figure for France, and if they change their minds and vote massively in favor of one candidate or another, Sunday could hold a surprise in store. But this seems unlikely. The abstainers are motivated, I think, by a general dislike of how things have gone over the past five years, so they're not likely to break massively for Sarkozy, and Hollande, with his low-profile campaign, has not given them a reason to think that his government will differ significantly from Sarkozy's except in style, in which respect it will mark a sharp break with current practice. But that's not likely to turn out the disaffected.

So I think that Sunday's result will put Sarkozy and Hollande into the second round, where current polling gives Hollande an almost insuperable advantage. The fear factor does not seem to be jelling into an anti-leftist backlash. Indeed, the Right's effort to portray Hollande as a weak-kneed milquetoast oddly undermines the simultaneous effort to revive fears of a "Socialo-Communist putsch" that will fill the place de la Concorde with workers carrying pikes and calling for the guillotine. A larger than expected Mélenchon vote might alarm a few excitable provincials, but the friends and colleagues of the Mélenchonistes know that most of them are schoolteachers and civil servants committed more to social justice than to hanging the last aristocrat from the nearest lamp post in the bowels of the last priest. Vive la France révolutionnaire et éternelle.

And so François Hollande will become the next president of France without having spelled out very precisely what he intends to do about the most serious immediate problem, the euro crisis, or the most serious long-term problems, restoring French growth and competitiveness and integrating a society whose centrifugal tendencies have become increasingly evident. A 30% anti-Establishment vote is a serious problem for any society, but I think John Vinocur is a bit hyperbolic. Compare France and the US: if you estimate the strength of the Tea Party at 30% and the left-wing critics who think Obama is a Republican in disguise at 25%, you have a much larger "Rejectionist Front" in the US than in France.

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