Politics and International Affairs and the quest for the ulterior motive.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Fight for Elysee: Sarkozy emerges front-runner

The French electorate has spoken and in a crowded pool of twelve candidates has short-listed the right wing Nicolas Sarkozy and the left wing Socialist Sergolene Royal for the final showdown on May 6th to emerge as the next French President. The exit polls from the first round of voting gave Mr. Sarkozy, the former Interior Minister, 30% of the votes while Ms. Royal got 25% of the votes. The other two popular candidates, centrist Francois Bayrou managed a respectable 18% of the votes while the ultra-right winger Jean Marie Le Pen got 11 % of the votes. Bayrou was singled out as the candidate that could have upset Royal’s chances in the run-up to the lections, however, Royal has emerged with a comfortable lead over Bayrou who shared many of the ideological polices of the Socialists Party. French election rules now will see a face-off between the two candidates that will be held on May 6th and will ultimately install a new President in the elaborate Elysee Palace, the official residence of the French leader.

Mr. Sarkozy has long been considered the frontrunner for these elections, even getting the endorsement from the outgoing President Jacques Chirac and enjoying a good deal support from varying interest groups and the significant portions of the French electorate. While the older generation of the French population tends to go the Socialist way, the young, middle class urban voter has often drifted towards the policy initiatives of Sarkozy. Sarkozy, the 52 year old former Interior Minister in the Chirac cabinet shot into prominence during the rioting of 2005 which saw the French police coming down heavily on illegal immigrants and minority groups who were accused of stoking ethnic tensions on the suburbs of Paris, which have long become ghetto communities for these populations that see themselves as being isolated from the French mainstream. The use of the word “thugs” for the rioters drew considerable criticism from sections of the French media who painted Sarkozy as a right-winger who remained detached from the problems of the French minorities who feels discriminated against. Mr. Sarkozy has also been seen as a fiscal conservative selling the idea of a new French competitiveness in the world with lesser intervention by the State in the French private sector. He has departed from the long held French tradition of a Socialist society with the government acting as a welfare state to help its farmers and blue-collar workers. Sarkozy has insisted that free-market economics is the only way the French economy can witness a turn around in a country where a 35-hour a week work ethic is the norm. Sarkozy has also closely aligned himself with US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a bid to repair the damaged trans-Atlantic and trans-channel relations between the two countries. Sarkozy wants to see France re-emerge as a global power rather than a fading has been as has been the decline of French influence in international affairs. He could take a leaf out of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s book of thoughts, who has emerged as a key player in the European Union as well as in world affairs with her playing a significant role in EU enlargement and constitution talks and with contributions to NATO for Afghanistan. Merkel’s predecessor Gerhard Schroeder had opposed the US intervention in Iraq and along with France was referred to by the former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as the “old Europe”. While one does wish to insinuate that toeing the US line amounts to global acceptance, having a say in the important decisions that will change history does require integration with the global community rather than rank isolationism. The French drift towards sullen isolationist policies need to be reversed as the country has much more to offer than the French cuisine and wine.

The other candidate who might pip Mr. Sarkozy is the Socialist candidate Ms. Sergolene Royal. Long loved by the vast majority of centre and leftist voters, she is hot on the tail of Sarkozy. She has cleverly cast herself in the role of a liberal on social issues while remaining moderately conservative on economic policies. She has asked for a new French competitiveness and has vowed to revive the French economy with a mix of reforms and protectionist measures for French farmers. Her shortcomings come in field of foreign policy where she is being seen as a policy lightweight and a series of gaffes abroad have questioned her ability to take France into the 21st century, a century that will see the rise of India and China and the emergence of the fames ‘flat world’. She has also come under criticism for wearing too many masks, become too inclusive in policies, borrowing from the left, right and centre to attract voters of all political hues. This encouraged many traditional Socialist Party voters to vote for the centrist candidate Francois Bayrou who managed a healthy 18 % of the votes. The far right ultra Nationalist from the National Front, Jean Marie Le Pen managed only 11% of the votes this time around, which is far more representative of French sentiment than the 2002 elections when he managed to make the cut for the run-off with Jacques Chirac. That vote ensured that French voters took a re-look at their politics and have put Le Pen in his place in these elections.

The Left-Right face-off between Royal and Sarkozy will now see the polarization of the French electorate. The 11% votes from Le Pen’s account will definitely go to Sarkozy who will increase his tally from 30% to 40%. The 18% of Bayrou’s votes are the real wooing battle that the two candidates must indulge in. Whichever side this 18% chunk of voters decide to vote for will ultimately decide the new occupant of the Elysee Palace. As things stand now whoever wins the elections will take over a divided country and it will be the role of the eventual leader to take the country forward in a united, all inclusive manner, if France wants to retain its prominence in international affairs.