Casino Royale: French Vote Gamble

Erratic Election Polls Make the Outcome Hard to Predict

News | Elodie Lamblin | March 2007

Segolene Royal and Nicholas Sarkozy, the leading candidates in the upcoming French presidential elections (Photo: EU / Jastrow / Creative Commons)

PARIS - There is one rallying cry one hears everywhere here today: "France needs a change!" The dinosaurs that have ruled the country must retire, people say, and leave space for new ideas and new leaders to re-organize, to motivate a nation that calls for modern and radical changes.

With upcoming presidential elections on April 22nd, there is hope; however, will the two actual dominant candidates, Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy, be the ones that French people have been waiting for?

Nicolas Sarkozy has played an important part in French politics for more than 30 years, starting as a student bringing together masses of young people to believe in a democratic and fair nation. He rapidly rose through the ranks of government due to his fierce determination for results. He has been minister of the Budget, of the State, of Communication, of the Interior, of the Economy, Finance and Industry as well as now President of his party, UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire). On the measure of experience alone, he is a master.

Yet, some of his mistakes linger in the minds of French people, despite the many years of service and many achievements, and errors people still have trouble forgetting – most egregious, perhaps, his ill conceived proposal to weaken first employment contracts for those under 26 to allow dismissal without explanation, which threw France’s major cities into turmoil.

The streets, originally taken by the striking students, were soon taken over by young people from the suburbs enraged against the present system, and its accompanying injustices, a vicious circle of unemployment, poverty and crime. Violence increased within a few hours, and the only spectators of these uprisings were the rest of the population, stuck in front of their television, scared to go out and confront the reality of what France had become: a nation of conflicts, strikes and dissatisfaction.

Jacques Chirac did not seem to have the capacity to handle the situation, so all eyes turned to the Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, waiting for him to restore order. As he took control and the riots subsided, people were generally reassured. But they were left with a niggling uncertainty: What he had claimed as a radical solution to the problem, was merely to banish the troubles-makers and send them back to their countries. Yet, these threats held no legal ground as most of the rioters were second or third generation immigrants, thus French citizens, and were discarded as empty handed rhetoric. However, this statement revived the impression of Sarkozy’s populist sentiments, and the media were quick to put him in the same category as the right-wing extremist Jean Marie Le Pen, a notion only reinforced by Sarkozy’s statement days before the riots erupted in which he referred to the rioters as "scum" that must be cleaned out with a power hose.

After this incident, the people started believing that even though Sarkozy had a good program for his campaign and had proved many times in the past that he was a strong leader, he might, after all, just be another power-hungry politician who, given the chance, would in the end abuse their trust. Confusion settled among electors.

It was thus believed that someone more responsive was needed, someone who could rule the country with more sensitivity, pragmatism and calm. Perhaps a woman.

It was then that Segolene Royal made her appearance, entering the scene with a forceful campaign for the presidency and brought with her a hint of a more feminine style of diplomacy that seemed to be what was needed.

She quickly became the favorite with a media aura that shone forth far beyond what had been expected. People received her candidature as a possibility for France to find again its lost values, particularly the sense of family, which she strongly defends.

Just as the first polls of 2007 were showing Segolene Royal as the leading candidate, facts began to emerge about who the candidate really was, troubling stories of her past, like the accusations that Royal and Vice Presidential candidate and Socialist Party General Secretary Francois Hollande were apparently dodging the payment of the wealth tax on their properties, leaked to the press and preference declined immediately.

Evelyne Pathouot, former parliamentary attaché to Segolene Royal from 1995 to 1997, published a book in which she warns the French electors about the two sides of Royal – "Dr. Royal and Miss Sego," as she refers to the candidate, enumerating a series of damaging claims including lying about the sources of income or not paying consultants, thus revealing the side of the candidate that French people had never seen before.

Again the French people felt perplexed. And polls declined.

In such situations, especially in times of elections, it is difficult to pull out the truth from what is said and written. Jealousy and rivalry play a large role in the quest for revenge. After the book’s release, a series of articles came out condemning some of the candidate’s alleged malfeasance, including accusations of being "a liar," and "a fake" engaging politician who promises everything and accomplishes the minimum necessary to save her pride and popularity with the party and the public. Some regional councilors that have worked by her side have also complained that changes were not easy to make when she was President of the Regional Council of Poitou-Charentes and Deputy of Les Deuy-Sevres, due to her very particular relationship with money, which prevented them from spending the sufficient amounts that would have been necessary.

However, in the end, none of this added up to much, other than that government is difficult and that Royal, like so many before her, had found imagining solutions harder than delivering on them. Thus despite the rumors and criticism, Royal recovered quickly and is now back on her feet, perhaps even stronger than before. She still has the merit of being a refreshing change in a party of ferocious men, winning by a large margin during primary election.

In fact, Royal has used her status as a woman as a defence. A foreign journalist once asked her a question that she could not apparently answer, and instead of embarrassment and confusion, she looked him straight in the eyes and answered whether he would have dared asking this question to a man. Being a woman fighting for a place in a world of men is perhaps her most powerful weapon, and she seems to know how to use it. However, it is not always to her advantage, if she uses it to evade questions. Among other things, voters need answers, and perhaps more importantly, to feel their questions are being taken seriously. Nevertheless, she has succeeded in rising faster to a high position than any other candidate, passing in front of all the men who had never taken her seriously throughout the years of her ascendance.

While Segolene Royal’s program tends towards values such as family, environment, and community democracy, this may not be enough to win the elections. Because asking people to engage themselves actively in politics goes together with the demand of a powerful leadership. With the French people asking for reform, real change will need to combine responsible actions and results.

The doubt that remains today in the primary concerns of France regards Segolene Royal and her abilities to be president of a country that needs more than simply leading it. But is France also ready to be ruled by a man whose desire for changes only rhymes with radicalism? If Royal doesn’t fit the bill, Sarkozy is the only candidate left whose tough stance on illegal immigration is bound to upset the more liberal French political circles, while on the other hand his call to reform French employment isn’t enhancing his popularity among the voters.

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