While Republicans in the United States are busy with primaries, the French Republic is preparing to elect or reelect a president for a five-year term. Voting will commence on April 22. If no candidate receives an absolute majority of the votes cast, the two candidates with the most votes will engage in a run-off two Sundays later.
Like the United States, France operates essentially with a two-party system: the UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) at the right and the PS (Partie Socialiste) at the left. France does have a weak centrist party (the MoDems) plus two extremist parties-Communists on the left and the right-wing National Front (FN)-but these have no realistic chance of winning a presidential election. (Since many in France are concerned about Muslim immigrants from former French colonies, the FN has gained ground, but its major accomplishment has been to push the major parties on immigration.)
The incumbent president, seeking a second term, is Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP). The husband of popular singer Carla Bruni, he decimated the Socialist candidate on national television five years ago. But in spite of Sarkozy's becoming a new father while in office (the French love babies), the current economic crisis has hurt him badly and he is now trailing in the polls. This is sad, since he has worked to clean up the French economy during the current downturn, and he has not been willing to spend public monies wildly.
Sarkozy's popularity has also suffered by his reducing the overblown French public service sector through a refusal to replace retiring civil servants. Of all the European leaders in recent years, he was the one who saw clearly that the euro has been artificially maintained at an inflated value, thereby creating root problems for the European Union nations. Sarkozy's successful and immensely important creation of a Constitutional Council provides a new and higher level of protection of civil liberties, but that appears too esoteric to capture the imagination of the French voter. Although not a practicing Catholic, Sarkozy has publicly encouraged Christian believers to be more active and not let the French separation of church and state intimidate them.
Though pre-election polls no longer show Sarkozy with majority support, the Socialists have been unable to find a candidate of mesmerizing quality. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a libertine, mercifully disappeared from the political scene after being arrested (though never prosecuted) for the alleged attempted rape of a female employee in a New York hotel. The choice finally devolved upon François Hollande-a middle-of-the road French socialist. (French socialists are more or less the equivalent of American liberal Democrats.)
Hollande has promised that he will massively increase spending in the public education sector-but where, precisely, will the money come from? His party (which now has a majority in the French legislative upper house, the Senate) is pushing a bill to give the right to vote in local elections to non-European Union foreigners. That proposal, patently a device to increase Socialist votes and pander to the suspect immigrant population, could well create an election backlash, as it did in the campaign of a previous Socialist presidential candidate, Lionel Jospin.
The election will also be important in defining church-state relations. Socialists oppose in principle parochial schools, and Hollande has declared that if elected he will seek to incorporate the 1905 separation-of-church-and-state law into the French Constitution. That will in theory if not in practice override the 19th-century concordat that still allows for religious education in the public schools and state support for churches in provinces of eastern France such as the Alsace.
So who will win? Prediction is highly dangerous in light of the mercurial French political spirit. Consistent in haute cuisine, the French are hardly stable in their political alignments: Note the pendulum swing from Old Régime to radical Revolution to autocratic Napoleonic imperialism, and a succession of no less than 15 French Constitutions. The general public now fears both the national debt and a reduction of social benefits (thus the brouhaha a year ago over the increase in pension age from 60 to 62!). But France badly needs Sarkozy's intelligent leadership.
-John Warwick Montgomery, a member of the Paris bar and an English barrister, serves as Distinguished Research Professor at Patrick Henry College