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The 2012 French Presidential election: the slow bicycle race

“The sprint is the most subtle form of track competition […] Sprinters will bring their bikes to a complete standstill in an attempt to force the other man to lead […]”

Roderick Watson & Martin Gray, The Penguin Book of the Bicycle. (1978: 238)

For the main rivals in the 2012 French presidential campaign, the race has been a long time warming up. After François Hollande’s convincing victory in the Socialist Party (PS) primaries, expectations of a New Year surge have so far been disappointed, with more negative “he said … you said …” sniping than true policy debate. In the autumn of 2011, Hollande’s lead over Nicolas Sarkozy appeared pretty much unassailable. Whilst it is always dangerous to predict victory so far out from the election, no incumbent had been so unpopular, or suffered such an opinion shortfall on their leading rival, as Sarkozy.

Of course, by the New Year, things look somewhat different. No one believed Hollande would maintain a double-digit lead over Sarkozy as the April 2012 ballot approached. However, Sarkozy’s ability to remain personally distant from early campaigning – citing the need to work as president rather than as candidate in a time of crisis, whilst exploiting that very same crisis to demonstrate the international presence and leadership a French president is expected to possess – has begun to eat into Hollande’s lead. As a consequence, most first-round polls found no statistically significant margin in favour of the Socialist in the lead-up to Christmas.

The turnaround is by no means complete, though: Sarkozy’s personal ratings, as opposed to vote intentions, are still very low and at present show no discernible signs of recovery. Of even greater concern for him are second-round polls showing him trailing Hollande by as much as 15%. Recall that five years ago, most polls had Sarkozy and Royal 1 % apart before Christmas. However, if the Socialist candidate does not reinvigorate his campaign soon, it might not require auspicious margins of error for the president to bring himself neck-and-neck.

Under the circumstances, and to mix sporting metaphors, one might have expected the contenders to come out fighting. Yet, despite a relatively heavy assault by Hollande on Sarkozy’s record in his New Year adresse aux Français, the Socialist campaign has yet to ignite in policy terms while the president remains aloof and ‘presidential’ until the last moment.

One reason for Hollande’s current lacklustre showing is that coverage of the PS presidential primary meant voters were made very familiar with his policy platform. He deliberately paused the campaign before Christmas to prevent this familiarity turning into contempt. But this has allowed his opponents to pick over relatively small inconsistencies and apparent contradictions, and force Hollande into a defensive position, notably over his much vaunted idea of amalgamating income tax and national insurance.

Another candidate to have apparently stalled is Marine Le Pen. Following her success in the 2011 cantonals, the Extreme Right candidate was already spoiling for the second round according to the polls, a feat only just achieved by her father in 2002. The vague bleue Marine (Marine blue wave), which many predicted on the back of polling well over 20% in some months has however ebbed. Few polls now place Le Pen within striking distance of the two main candidates, and indeed the gradual climb of the centrist François Bayrou’s vote could see her pushed back into fourth place – again, like her father, but this time in 2007. The poll most favourable to the Extreme Right candidate – IFOP – puts her at 20%, nine points ahead of Bayrou, but almost as much again behind Hollande. Any ground she has made up comes from net transfers from Hollande and Sarkozy to Bayrou.

That her own numbers are static points to a key issue for 2012: whilst the economic crisis and political disenchantment might be a promising context for an Extreme Right candidate, the uncertainty associated with the Eurozone crisis, the spectre of a vanishing triple A status and the profound popular desire for political alternation after ten years of right-wing dominance might take many disgruntled voters away from Le Pen.

The greatest noise to date has come from the multiplicity of minor candidates lining up to contest the first round. Louder than normal have been complaints about the famous 500 signatures needed to run as a candidate. Some have threatened to invoke the Constitutional Council to rule on its legality (some 35 years after instigation in its current form). Others simply wish a return to anonymised signatures, as per the original 1962 statute, to allow mainstream party mayors to support minor candidates without threat of sanctions from their own organisation. Nevertheless, as a threshold for participation, 500 signatures from a total of around 45,000 eligible parrains is still remarkably low.

Some of the minor candidates will undoubtedly influence the campaign positively by representing important, if minority, positions on key policy issues, or providing an alternative, personality-oriented pole. Others currently appear like so much excess baggage.

In the former group, François Bayrou, Eva Joly and even Frédéric Nihous occupy such niche positions. With the now ubiquitous debt crisis, Bayrou’s longstanding call for budgetary orthodoxy and national unity might appeal to middle-of-the-road voters on both left and right. Joly, the environmental candidate, may not be so fortunate. Despite her unanticipated victory over odds-on celebrity green Nicolas Hulot in the EELV primary, as well as the Fukushima disaster and the consequent amplification of debate on nuclear energy, Joly seems currently incapable of influencing much with a mere 4-5% in the polls.

For their part, candidates such as Dominique de Villepin or Jean-Pierre Chevènement, as well as Christine Boutin, will do nothing but destabilise electoral competition through offering essentially irrelevant alternatives. Perhaps an argument could be made that they reflect the inability of the major party candidates to mobilise their own majorities. Some have suggested that Sarkozy’s late declaration allowed other Right-wing candidates to enter the fray, as if they are somehow unaware that his declaration is doubtless forthcoming. An alternative interpretation would be they reflect more the ability of politicians to exaggerate their own importance. There is still time for some, if not all, to withdraw from the race in the light of ego-correcting polls, probably after negotiating a good backdoor deal in exchange for supporting their camp’s leading candidate.

Noteworthy, finally, is the absence of a strong Extreme Left candidate, and of two in particular – Arlette Laguiller and Olivier Besancenot, who contributed to shaping left-wing party competition in the past by pulling voters away from the PS. Whilst steadily slipping in vote share, this wing has nonetheless provided a dynamic foil for the moderate left parties in previous elections, and has punched well above its true electoral weight through charismatic and engaging candidates. Judging from their current scores in polls, Nathalie Arthaud and Philippe Poutou lack the sort of appeal enjoyed by their predecessors.

This potentially leaves a political space wide open for the Left Front bringing together the remains of the Communist party and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Party of the Left. With the Left Front’s candidate only recently departed from the Socialist Party himself, and despite his claim to not want a compromise with his former party, the Left bloc may present a more unified front for the first time since the late 1970s, but lacks the spark of that same period. Polling around 6-7%, this looks likely to be the sum total of the popular support for Mélenchon in four months’ time.

The race – such as it is – currently involves a lot of standing still, and little movement. Perhaps the expectation that the candidates would be in full flow at this point was unreasonable. Yet, the more the media report the lack of activity on the part of the main candidates, the greater the risk that a currently engaged public loses interest, and what all in France wish to avoid – low turnout – results.

La classe politique shouldshow similar awareness to the cycling world, which realised that subtlety rapidly palls.

“The maximum period for a standstill shall be 30 seconds […]”

Section 3.2.039, UCI Rules on Track Races

Jocelyn Evans is Professor of Politics at the University of Salford. Dr Gilles Ivaldi is a CNRS researcher in political science based at the University of Nice. They are working together on a book for Palgrave with Prof Jim Shields analysing the 2012 French elections. Their election blog can be found here. They also both work on European Right-wing populism, with Prof Evans currently collaborating with Dr Matthew Goodwin of the School of Politics and IR at Nottingham University on a British Academy-funded survey of British Extreme Right supporters’ attitudes.

Published inEuropean PoliticsFrance 2012


  1. Mike Killingworth Mike Killingworth

    What about Eric Cantona?

  2. Taganrog Taganrog

    That was a stunt to attract attention to the housing problem in France (Cantona is patron of an important homeless charity in France)

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