On the 6th of May, Francois Hollande was elected as the President of the 5th Republic of France, making him the second left-wing candidate to achieve office. Hollande led the Parti-Socialiste into victory with 53% of the votes, defeating incumbent President Sarkozy of UMP (Union of Popular Movement).
Parti-Socialiste’s historic victory was welcomed by hour long celebrations of tens and thousands of French citizens who “stormed” the Bastille, tapping into the legacy of revolutionary France: this was an astonishing sight of passion for an election that was deemed un-inspirational only a few weeks prior the vote.
Commentators claimed that the high 80% turnout rate for both rounds of voting, which is non-compulsory in France, was out of a sense of civic duty, not the prospect of radical change. Major French media consistently reported a mixture of cynicism among Hollande’s supporters. His supporters do not expect a leftist revolution; rather, they wanted right-wing Sarkozy out of power. Sarkozy is perceived by many as having failed France and Europe with his conservative and pro-austere politics.
During the election campaign, the contrast between the public images of Hollande and Sarkozy provided the backdrop for all major issues, from immigration to the future of Europe. Hollande has publicised himself as ‘Mr Normal’, whereas Sarkozy is referred by the French Media as ‘Mr Bling Bling’ because of his luxurious lifestyle. The ‘Mr Normal’ image aims to emphasise Hollande’s commitment to addressing the interests of ordinary French citizens, in particular in regards to social economic justice, a concern heightened since the Euro Crisis started.
Hollande has developed policies such as the fat cat tax whereby every dollar earned over 1,000,000 EU p.a will be taxed at 75%. Sarkozy proposed different tactics for reducing France’s national debt; he promised to reduce immigration (blaming immigrants for France’s economic woes) and lower public spending. Some French citizens believe that these are the most pragmatic tactics, and are sceptical of Hollande’s inexperience (he has never held a Ministry position). However, the majority were tired of Sarkozy’s repeated failures to improve France’s economic situation during his five year presidency. Hollande’s approach to policy makes economic inequalities and unemployment problems moral and classist issues. This made Hollande a real alternative to Sarkozy; however for some voters Hollande and Parti-Socialiste is not radical enough.
In the French election, smaller parties were influential in determining the final results, especially the two more radical parties. Philosophy graduate Jean-luc Mélenchon, the radical left candidate for Front De Gauche, argues that neo-liberalism is morally and economically flawed. Mélenchon’s most controversial policy is capping salaries at €360,000. When asked if this policy would drive entrepreneurs overseas, he simply replied “good riddance”. This was predicted to destroy Mélenchon’s campaign, but instead his vote grew from 5 % to 11% of the final vote. His growth in popularity indicates that France wants to shift away from economic and political reforms which favour the rich. At the height of his popularity Mélenchon was gaining 16% of the votes, and Hollande was pressured to assure his supporters that he has clear left-wing policies which benefit the poor, the working class, females and minority ethnic groups.
The radical right National Front has been on the rise since 2002. In this year’s election, their candidate, Marine Le Pen, won 17% of the vote. Although Le Pen and Sarkozy share anti-immigration policies which are Islamophobic, Le Pen holds stronger appeal for the working class who suffer from unemployment and feel neglected by mainstream political parties. National Front has in the past been perceived as a marginal and racist party. They have rebranded themselves by appealing to rural workers and proposing a complete from the EU; because they compromise national sovereignty. Le Pen represents the complexity of French elections. On one hand she conflicts with the rising left but her popularity adheres to new focus on economic justice and the failings of the current system.
In his election victory speech, Hollande thanked his voters for trusting him to create a new, brighter future for France. He both respects and recognises that France needs to evolve in an increasingly global world by welcoming immigration and celebrating the diverse backgrounds of France. Hollande’s newly picked cabinet reflects this new vision of France; the positions are filled by Ministers with a range of ethnic backgrounds, half of whom are female (compared to the 26% average of Europe). Hollande has already reversed Sarkozy’s pension law which increased the retirement age, and capped all executive pay of state controlled companies to €450,000. Most importantly, he has won an absolute majority in the Parliamentary Elections, giving Parti-Socialiste the power to implement their election promises.
Despite this encouraging start, Hollande’s biggest battle remains curbing rising unemployment and negotiating a viable future for the EU. Since the election victory there has been much speculation about the prospect of an overall political shift to the left in Europe. This has been reinforced by the backlash against austerity measures in the recent Greek elections, and the fact that Hollande will not resume Sarkozy’s partnership with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in promoting austere reforms. During this volatile time in European politics, it remains uncertain if he will be able to spark a new left and anti-neoliberalism trend in Europe. Regardless, Hollande’s victory through appealing to increased economic justice and more socialist policies demonstrates that there is both a hunger and potential for real change.