French Election 2012: Americans Should Pay Attention

For many Americans, France is an enchanting country, one of culture, art, and fine food, but inhabited by the rather rude French and led by politicians with insatiably large libidos. So, I imagine if ordinary Americans were asked to name one French politician, apart from DSK, most would struggle even to recall the diminutive incumbent of the Elysée Palace. Really though, who can blame them? 

Normally, French politics is the home of the balding but somehow overly-coiffured presidential candidate, the summum of lackluster campaigning and politicians' elitist, semi-philosophical ponderings on the existential nature of democracy: in other words, tragically dull. However, the 2012 election is different; it is a contest pitting a deeply popular incumbent against a man totally lacking in personality, set against the backdrop of severe economic problems and crowned by an all-time dislike by a people of their politicians, bordering on outright loathing. Sound familiar? But this is not the U.S. election, rather its French counterpart. In many ways, France will be a litmus test for the upcoming U.S. election; so Americans should sit up and pay attention.

Currently, anti-incumbent fever is running high worldwide, especially in the U.S. and Europe. The Spanish elections have been a first indication that current leaders are under threat for perceived lack of action during the current economic crises, with former Italian President Silvio Berlusconi serving as another example. Additionally, major political incumbents such as British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are frequently taking popular beatings in opinion polls, a trend which extends to France. President Nicolas Sarkozy is entering the race as one of the most unpopular presidents ever, despised by a wide social range of French people. He stands to receive 27% of votes, which is an improvement on earlier this year. Now, like Obama, Sarkozy must find ways of tempting voters back to him and, importantly, get them to trust him again.

Domestically, Sarkozy is seen as having badly mismanaged the economy, taking away many social rights the French have enjoyed for generations. His austerity measures are highly unwelcome, leading to mass strikes and protests, paralyzing the nation. Sarkozy failed to deliver his planned pre-election promises to change France by restructuring a perceived inflexible system. Yet, his electoral campaign will not reflect this, focusing instead on his leadership qualities; another reason for Americans to watch closely and see what their own candidates will eventually put forth at election time.

Equally, should the euro zone crisis develop into a full-blown collapse, then the ensuing wave of recession could be felt in the U.S., putting jobs and investments at risk. This is the nightmare scenario, but Americans should still be concerned about who occupies the Elysée Palace at this crucial point in time, for France, together with Germany, is the very fulcrum of the EU, holding the euro zone together. Although Americans may feel concerned only with the U.S. economy, the nature of globalization means that if Europe goes into economic cardiac arrest, the U.S. might get a nasty shock and wake up call that no one wants. Who will be the new French leader is therefore important  for the American people in this time of economic flux.

And with the Arab Spring, Libya, and Iran being the dominant foreign policy themes this year, the U.S. needs international partners more than ever, especially ones such as France. The days when the U.S. could act unilaterally are over. In this era of multi-lateral cooperation, France is a key partner and Sarkozy a very U.S.-friendly partner. So, this election is a key foreign policy interest of the U.S, for if Sarkozy will be replaced, the U.S. needs to act fast in securing the cooperation of his successor, permitting a continuation of the partnership that is visible now.

Consequently, the themes of a broken economy, a desperately unpopular incumbent, turgid opposition, and a thoroughly angry electorate dissatisfied with its ruling class are evident greatly resemble those of a potential U.S. election narrative. If Sarkozy gains re-election and remains in power, it will be the clearest signal yet that anti-incumbent fever in major economies, such as France, are more often aimed at getting a message out, not at replacing leaders. Maybe this could give Americans food for thought, allowing them to consider whether the devil you don't know really is better than the devil you do know. Americans now need to sit up and pay attention to France’s forthcoming election.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Will Birch

Specialising in Maghreb affairs, William has lived and traveled throughout the MENA region.

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