French voters in London were out in force on 22 April. At the new French school in Kentish Town – primary through lycée, fee-paying – there were four lines of blue and white tape running the length of the courtyard and hundreds of people moving towards the voting booths in a good-natured queue. Outside the gate a graphic designer in her thirties from Limousin said she’d voted left. Medium or rare? ‘To the left.’ She’d been 12 years in Britain and liked it. She had a daughter at Grazebrook primary school in Stoke Newington and was full of praise for the education she was getting. Why vote for the left in the old country when so much of what she liked about the new one – job flexibility, a job at all – had its origins in a radical loosening up that Sarkozy has failed to bring about in France? And what new government could make a difference to the costive, regimented style of schooling that her daughter was spared? She saw that, she said, but worried that the free-for-all in Britain had gone the way of the rich.
A twenty-something student at the London Business School agreed with the press in France that the election was boring – a regular refrain until moments before the result was announced – but said it was his duty to vote. I’d hear this from at least a dozen people, including a fast-food restaurateur from Algiers, an IT worker from St Etienne and another from Réunion. All three had their children with them: there were plenty of children queuing with their parents.
I ran into a friend, who complained about her family’s intentions in the Pyrenees. Her mother and two of her sisters voted for Eva Joly, the Green candidate, in the first round and planned to abstain on 6 May. Her brother would vote for Hollande in both. ‘My sister, who’s rich and spoiled, will vote for Mélenchon,’ she said. My friend, neither rich nor spoiled, voted for him too.
The élan of Mélenchon’s campaign was impressive but it concealed the advance of the Front National. Later that night, as the results came through, the mood at the French Institute in Queensberry Place was bleak. In this part of London, the expatriate vote is for the right but no one was proud of the way things were going. A youngish man with a beard and expensive casual clothes, a Sarkozy supporter, was morose about Marine Le Pen’s score, reckoned at 20 per cent: things could be worse for Sarkozy but the FN’s success sullied the image of France.
A year ago, when I wrote about Marine Le Pen in the LRB (14 April 2011) it looked as though she was the candidate to watch but by March the media had talked themselves out of it. Foolish. Chirac had tried to isolate her father in 2002 and he’d ended up as a contender in the second round. Sarkozy spent much of 2010 and most of 2011 trying to rob her of her following and dragging his party further to the right. Running behind her failed to do the trick, and now it’s too late to stop. Until the decisive day, Sarkozy will keep toiling up the road with his tongue hanging out. His people have done the sums and come to the conclusion that it’s worth alienating the more moderate right in all-out pursuit of Le Pen’s voters.
Sarkozy has announced that Le Pen is ‘compatible with the Republic’. Libération is appalled that a head of state should be flirting with the far right. But almost one in five voters – 17.9 per cent in the final count – are with the FN and they won’t go away: boosted by its showing in round one, the FN will be fighting hard to win a seat (its first) in the legislative election in June. The other figure Sarkozy has to bear in mind is 9.13 per cent, polled by François Bayrou, the dreary candidate for the centrist Mouvement Démocrate. Bayrou is hostile to Sarkozy and his ‘ideology of money’, but he is not a socialist. Nor are his followers, who turned on him in 2007 for even discussing the options with Ségolène Royal before the second round of presidentials. But the further Sarkozy clatters to the right, the more tempting it will be for some of Bayrou’s supporters to opt for Hollande, whether or not Bayrou tells them to do so (he hasn’t issued any instructions so far). Meanwhile there are no guarantees that FN voters will move to the centre-right. They despise the UMP, Sarkozy’s party, as much as Mélenchon does: they are rank-and-file anti-globalisers, finance-haters and sworn enemies of the political elites.
Bayrou has every reason to feel disappointed. The more he talked about the debt before 22 April, the further he dropped in the polls. As the campaign intensified, Hollande and Sarkozy steered studiously clear of the subject. French voters do not want to hear of public expenditure cuts, even if state, local government and the health and pensions systems between them are indebted to the tune of roughly 1600 billion euros. Both Hollande and Sarkozy base their debt reduction on tax strategies, and growth forecasts that look optimistic.
But the electorate is not stupid or lost in some nostalgic wish for order. When Mitterrand was elected in 1981, there was a fleeting sense among the left that France might become a socialist country: socialist, that is, as opposed to capitalist. This election is about what capitalism is for: if it doesn’t do wealth creation and general prosperity, then what does it do? France may be one of the world’s largest economies, but it is a small place where regulation and intervention are still seen as the answers to ultra-liberal market doctrines. The markets are real, in this view, but they have achieved the status of a cult, churning out articles of faith and reiterating them at every opportunity. The French are strict about the boundaries of religion.
Thirteen years ago the ambitious Sarkozy dismissed the Tobin tax on financial transactions as ‘an absurdity’. In 2012 public sentiment forced it onto his campaign programme. However embattled and disapproved of (by the Economist in particular), France would still like a conversation about markets and people. With more than half of France’s debt held by overseas lenders, that wish may turn out to be quixotic, but frustrations are running high and people want to have it just the same. Sarkozy is associated with the liberal programme he failed to implement, a small-time conjuror whose much vaunted trick – work more to earn more – was an embarrassing flop. This still leaves Hollande in a strong position after round one.
On the night of the first vote an equities trader watching the TV coverage at the French Institute produced his mobile phone and showed me his own forecasts sent out to friends the previous day. He got Le Pen more accurately than the pollsters and the two main candidates to within a percentage point. A few days later he called to remind me that the ‘rise’ in the fortunes of the far right is unclear. In 2002 the vote was split, with Bruno Mégret, formerly FN, standing for the Mouvement National Républicain. The turnout in the first round was lower – 73 per cent in 2002 against 80 now – but between them Le Pen Sr and Mégret took more than 19 per cent of the vote. In any case, he gives the presidency to Hollande. The markets will flinch, he suspects, but the memory of Sarkozy’s uninspiring record will help them settle down. He stopped taking the Economist in 2007, when it showed Sarkozy on the cover as the new Napoleon.