Candidates on Left and Right Flourish as French Voters Head to the Polls

While President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Francois Hollande, vying to become the country’s first left-wing president since Francois Mitterand defeated incumbent Valery Giscard-d’Estaing in 1981, appear likely to survive Sunday’s first-round balloting in France, several radical candidates — led by fiery leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the far-right’s Marine Le Pen — are hoping for a last-minute, frustration-fueled surge that will unexpectedly put them in next month’s runoff.

Anything is possible in a country where anger, fear and disillusionment are rampant. 

The Left Front’s Mélenchon, who has risen from virtual obscurity at the outset of his campaign, was drawing crowds rivaling or exceeding those of his major rivals in the campaign’s closing days, including attracting a wildly enthusiastic crowd of 100,000 supporters at a recent rally at Paris’ Bastille monument. 

The 60-year-old Mélenchon, a former teacher and ex-Trotskyist who favors a 100 percent income tax on the super-wealthy, has been polling between 14 to 17 percent in recent polls and is certainly a wild-card in tomorrow’s election.  It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he could spring an upset by finishing ahead of one of his two leading rivals. 

The National Front’s Le Pen, the youngest daughter of French nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen who stunned Parisians by unexpectedly coming in second during the first round of the 2002 presidential election — finishing nearly 200,000 votes ahead of the Socialist Party’s Lionel Jospin — will also be a factor on Sunday, though it’s highly unlikely that she’ll repeat her father’s strong second-place showing of a decade earlier.

The 43-year-old lawyer, who briefly led Sarkozy in some early polling but now finds herself trailing both Sarkozy and Hollande by double-digits, nevertheless believes that she will surpass her father’s 17 percent showing. 

Given the country’s sputtering economy, it would probably be a mistake to completely discount Le Pen’s starkly protectionist economic message, one that includes a moratorium on legal immigration. 

The Democratic Movement’s Francois Bayrou, the lone centrist in Sunday’s balloting, probably won’t be a factor in the outcome, but could play the role of kingmaker in a decisive second round showdown between the beleaguered Sarkozy and the less-than-dynamic Hollande on May 6. 

 The author of more than a dozen books on history and politics, Bayrou — the odd man out in a race primarily focused on four other candidates — garnered more than 6.8 million votes in the 2007 presidential election, finishing about seven percentage points behind the Socialist Party’s Ségolène Royal.  

Calling for the introduction of a “Tobin tax” — an international financial transactions tax —the 61-year-old Bayrou, who is waging his third consecutive campaign for the presidency, is running at about 10 percent in the polls and will need a miracle to advance to the second round. 

Political activist Jacques Cheminade, a self-described “left-wing Gaullist” running on a Lyndon LaRouche-affiliated Solidarité et Progrès ticket, is also hoping that lightning will strike on Sunday, as are several other long-shot candidates, including the Green Party’s Eva Joly, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a leader and founder of the center-right Arise the Republic, and little-known Trotskyists Nathalie Arthaud, representing Workers’ Struggle, and political novice Philippe Poutou of the New Anti-Capitalist Party. 

Jacques Cheminade

The Norwegian-born Joly, who was once named “European of the Year” by Reader’s Digest, is currently polling at two percent. 

Dupont-Aignan, 50, ran briefly for President of France five years ago, but dropped out after failing to obtain the necessary 500 signatures from elected officials.  A former member of Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), Dupont-Aignan wants France to leave the Eurozone and to get out of NATO.  Like the better-known Le Pen on his political right, he also wants to restrict immigration.  He’s garnering between one and two percent of the vote in recent polls.

The 42-year-old Arthaud, a teacher with a degree in economics, served as a campaign spokesperson for perennial presidential candidate Arlette Laguiller in 2007.   The left-leaning Laguiller, a female Harold Stassen of French politics, polled nearly a half million votes in that contest.  

An autoworker, the 45-year-old Poutou enjoys the support of  Olivier Besancenot, the immensely popular young and dynamic socialist and trade unionist who polled nearly 1.5 million votes in the first round of France’s 2007 presidential election.  Besancenot’s blessing notwithstanding, it’s highly unlikely that the shy and mild-mannered Poutou will be occuping the Elysée Palace anytime soon.

Cheminade, 70, hopes to free France from the ravages of financial speculation — “casino capitalism,” as he prefers to call it — and is campaigning aggressively for global Glass-Steagall reform, separating traditional commercial banking from investment banking.  He’s also pushing for the creation of a sovereign national credit or banking system to finance desperately-needed infrastructure projects in collaboration with other nations.

Like his much-maligned counterpart in the United States, Cheminade had warned of the dangers of credit default swaps and other derivatives — the “speculative cancer” contaminating the entire global financial sysem — as early as 1995.  Nobody listened.

The Argentina-born candidate, a longtime admirer of the late Charles de Gaulle and a former commercial attaché at the French embassy in Washington, boasts the most comprehensive platform of any candidate in the race — a document spanning some 368 pages. 

Cheminade, who received 84,969 votes in a previous bid for president, hopes to do much better this time around.

Worried about the European debt crisis and saddled with a stagnant economy of their own — including labor costs that are among the highest in Europe and unemployment claims reaching a 12-year high — it’s impossible to predict how the French electorate will respond to all of the doom and gloom surrounding them. 

President Sarkozy — under whose watch France lost its perfect triple-A credit rating last year — and the Socialist Party’s Hollande, whose uninspiring campaign has seemed destined for the second round all along, will probably toss and turn restlessly tonight while Mélenchon, Le Pen, Cheminade and the others dream of a desperately unpredictable electorate ready to turn to one of them.



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