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French Election Round Table Discussion

  • Arthur Goldhammer ,
  • Laurent Cohen-Tanugi ,
  • Jimia Boutouba

Timed between the election's first and second rounds, this discussion brings together noted scholars and authors with unique and deep insight into contemporary French political culture.

Co-sponsored by the Europe Center and the French Culture Workshop

A brief write-up of this discussion titled "French vote a rejection of Sarkozy, panelists say" can be found in the May 7, 2012 edition of the Stanford Daily.

Event Summary:

Arthur Goldhammer opens the panel by arguing that the first round of the French presidential elections, not the second, are "the real story." For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, divisions between left and right were less pronounced than between the top two tiers of candidates (Hollande/Sarkozy, and Melénchon/Le Pen) especially regarding their attitudes toward European integration, globalization, and the Euro. Goldhammer points out that given France's role as a top global investor as well as a leading destination for foreign investment, the anti-globalization stance of the second tier candidates is unrealistic, although it enjoyed broad support at the polls. Sarkozy responded to this show of support by attacking the Shengen agreement and other aspects of the EU in a bid to win votes, while Hollande kept a low profile on the same issues. If Hollande wins, Goldhammer predicts, he will be tested by the markets and the global financial industry. He also points out that the Socialist and UNP parties are both internally divided on important issues.  If Sarkozy loses and decides to leave politics, Goldhammer predicts a power struggle for leadership of the party.

Laurent Cohen-Tanugi predicts that if Hollande wins, the outcome will be a statement against Sarkozy more than one in favor of Hollande. He echoes Arthur Goldhammer's concern about a strong market reaction to a victory by Hollande, who has positioned himself as pro-growth and has sanctioned Sarkozy for his strict austerity measures. Cohen-Tanugi adds that Hollande's focus is on domestic politics, and that he lacks significant international experience. Whoever wins, he cautions, France is in for difficult times.

Jimia Boutouba describes the rise of the extreme right – which has invoked nostalgia for a pre-globalization era - leading up to the elections. This rise has been dominated by Marine Le Pen and the Front National, which vows to defend the "French way of life" and (like Sarkozy as the election neared) has made anti-immigration rhetoric a key component of its platform. Le Pen, however, has attracted many first time, rural, and female voters, and has been successful in setting the tone and the agenda of national politics. Boutouba sees several problems with this trend toward defining the nation by what it opposes (Islam, globalization, international finance, etc), and warns it can be very disruptive to the political system, pointing to the recent fall of the Dutch government. More significantly, the anti-immigrant tone of the discourse discourages second and third generation descendants of immigrants from voting or participating in the political process.

A question and answer session following the roundtable addressed such questions as: Have both Hollande and Sarkozy radicalized their rhetoric and proposals to win support from far right and far left voters? Will the taxes and government spending (which is already very high in France, at 57%) promised by some politicians choke private sector growth? Which candidate will be most attractive to this new generation of French college graduates? What are the main differences between the three potential leaders currently jockeying for control of Sarkozy's party? To what extent would a Hollande presidency be beholden to Communists, Greens, and other extreme left parties? How will a Hollande presidency affect France's involvement with NATO, and relations with the United States? What are the prospects for the future of the Euro?