In memory of Dr. Andreas Höfert

A primer on French elections

| Tags: Andreas Höfert

France will elect its president in a first round on 22 April, and in a second on 6 May. A non-French outsider might sometimes be puzzled about the themes and debates animating the campaign.

Taking a birds’-eye view, however, the French presidential elections reflect what usually occurs elsewhere in elections with two rounds or with primaries: First, candidates assemble their camps by taking extreme positions, while the second round is more consensus-oriented to woo voters from the political middle.

Barring a surprise, the two candidates who will reach the second round are incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy, from the right-wing Union for a Popular Moment and François Hollande, from the left-wing Socialist Party. Four runners-up are likely to gather significant votes in the first round: Marine Le Pen from the extreme right National Front, François Bayrou from the center, Jean-Luc Mélenchon from the far left Communist Party, and Eva Joly from the Green Party.

France’s electorate roughly divides into 30% moderate right, 30% moderate left, 15% extreme right, 15% extreme left and 10% who would define themselves as “centrists.”

The task for the main candidates in the first round is to make sure their rivals from the left or right do not score significantly, because the higher their scores, the more impact they will be able to have on the main candidates’ programs. Moreover, the presidential elections in France are followed by parliamentary elections, scheduled for 10 and 17 June. Here also, higher scores from runner-up presidential candidates could impact the outcome of those legislative elections.

In the two weeks between the first and the second presidential rounds, both candidates will try to cajole the moderate electorate. The climax between the two rounds comes during a traditional televised debate between the two contenders. After this debate, the choices of the voters are usually settled.

Given these parameters, an outsider can better grasp that the tone and proposals of the two main candidates are sometimes extreme and border on caricature. Mr. Hollande’s promise to “tax the rich” and Mr. Sarkozy’s to “close the borders” should be seen in this light and not taken at face value.

Striking now, though, for people who follow French elections is that many of France’s current challenges are absent from the debate: The lofty debt, unfunded social security liabilities, the future of the euro, the size of government and its perceived ineffectiveness, and the high rate of unemployment, especially among young people at 23% (compared with 9% in Germany), are only some of the daunting tasks that the new president will have to address after the election.