Normalising the French presidency: explaining Francois Hollande's victory.

Author:Evans, Jocelyn
Position:Notebook - Report


Francois Hollande's victory in the 2012 presidential elections marked a return to the Elysee Palace for the Socialist Party for the first time since 1995, and a second cycle of alternation away from a right-wing President. Hollande is only the second left-wing President under the Fifth Republic, following Francois Mitterrand. For the three previous presidential races--1995, 2002 and 2007--many Socialists felt that victory had been achievable, not least in 2002 when their candidate Lionel Jospin then failed to progress even to the second round due to an unfortunate combination of low turnout and a high number of candidates. In 2012, the left were fighting to escape the label of executive also-rans who had once again lost an election, rather than their right-wing opponents winning it.

A Hollande victory therefore struck his party and its supporters as overdue. Add to this the stalling in 2007 of the regular alternation between left and right majorities in the National Assembly which had occurred between 1981 and 2002--a nevertheless unstable situation which could be characterised as hyper-alternance borne of mass political dissatisfaction (Evans and Ivaldi, 2002)--and anything other than a Socialist victory appeared unjust. With a Senate majority for the very first time, and a crushing landslide in the regional elections two years previously, all the indications were that, by June 2012, both the Elysee and the Palais Bourbon would be Socialist-controlled.

Yet the experience, not so much of 2007 and Segolene Royal's defeat in the second round, but of 2002 and Lionel Jospin's momentous defeat in the first round of the election, led rational expectations of Hollande's victory to be tempered by irrational concerns over the power of French elections to generate 'a surprise'. A renascent extreme right, in the shape of Marine Le Pen; a centrist candidate, Francois Bayrou, who had run Sarkozy and Royal a close third in 2007, and who could potentially attract centre-left voters with a programme based on social liberalism and an economic Realpolitik; and the spectre of a disinterested, or worse, disenfranchised electorate turning out in only paltry numbers: despite all the evidence to the contrary, the suspicion of the left once more losing ground to the conservative right dogged Hollande until the eventual announcement of the winner on the evening of 6 May.

The sound foundations of a Socialist victory

In retrospect, these fears were unfounded. Marine Le Pen's challenge came only to the moderate right, at least in net effect. Despite the significant proportion of blue-collar voters she managed to attract, this represented a return to the FN electorate of the mid-1990s, an ever-smaller group in the electorate as a whole, and one no longer crucial to the Socialist's success, practically if not ideologically. Conversely, the support that her father Jean-Marie had lost to the conservative and authoritarian Sarkozy in 2007 returned disappointed in large part to the Front national fold, depriving the incumbent of a still-crucial tranche of voters. Francois Bayrou failed to match his personal best of 2007, unable to present a sufficiently persuasive alternative to what was on offer to his left, and indeed in economic terms, to his right. His apparent ouverture to Hollande, and his indication that he himself would vote for the Socialist in the second round, alienated many centre-right voters, and rendered his appeal to the centre-left redundant. Lastly, voters turned out in large numbers--not quite to the level of 2007, but above 80 per cent nonetheless. Electoral mathematics did not catch up with the Socialists.

Structurally, competition amongst the presidential candidates presented a number of advantages to Hollande. Firstly, the number of candidates in the race was smaller than in 2002, and even than in 2007 (Table 1).

Table 1: Candidate competition in French presidential elections (1995-2012) 1995 2002 2007 2012 Number of 9 16 12 10 candidates Effective 5.97 8.75 4.70 4.77 number of candidates Note: the effective number of candidates or parties is formally defined as the inverse of the sum of squared individual candidate/party proportions of the vote (Laakso and Taagepera, 1979). The worry of a left vote spread too thinly across too many candidates was unfounded. Looking across the left candidates, the number dropped from seven in 2007 (if Jose Bove is counted as of the left) to five. Of course, the absolute number of candidates does not tell us the eventual spread of vote. But, as the second row of Table 1 shows, the...

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