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2012 Post-Election Report: French Presidential Election

- May 21, 2012

We are pleased to welcome the following French 2012 Presidential Election post-election report from Patrick Merle and Dennis Paterson of Texas Tech University.

On April 22 and May 6, 2012, more than 37 million French citizens went to the polls to select the next president of the Fifth Republic. Since December 21, 1958, French voters have elected seven presidents,[1] and this most recent contest featured a runoff between the incumbent President, Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP), elected in 2007 over Socialist Party candidate, Ségolène Royal, and current Socialist Party leader, Francois Hollande, who was nominated at the Socialist primaries in October, 2011 with 56.7% of Socialists’ votes. French presidential elections have involved such runoffs because, since 1962, French presidents have been elected directly by popular vote in a two-round majority runoff system.[2] This set of electoral rules guarantees that whoever occupies L’Elysée will have obtained a majority of the popular vote,[3] because if no presidential candidate emerges with a majority on the first ballot, a second round of voting is held between the top two vote getters. On the other hand, this electoral system also structures the struggle for elective office in France around two sets of competition dynamics, both of which have undergone changes over time.

The first set, recurrent in French presidential elections, involves an ongoing rivalry between La Gauche, the left wing, and La Droite, the right wing, while the second set, traditionally visible in the first round of voting, involves struggles among individual and institutional actors within the Left and Right camps,[4] particularly those who have been able to gather support from a minimum of 500 French mayors as required by Le Conseil Constitutionnel. This most recent presidential contest witnessed both inter-party and intra-party competition, and, like past presidential elections, it was the competition within France’s political Left and Right in the first round of voting that strongly influenced the shape outcomes took in the second round of voting.

Ten candidates from different political parties competed in the first round of this election. The two strongest candidates were incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Socialist nominee, Francois Hollande, and following these two candidates were three competitors who were far enough behind going into the first round to be out of the running to make it to the second. They are Marine Le Pen of the National Front, the Left Front’s Jean-Luc Mélechon, and MoDem’s François Bayrou. The remaining first-round contenders were Eva Jolly of the French Green Party, followed by four remaining candidates who all had rather low support rates.

How these candidates fared in the first round of voting is captured by the data in Table 1. The data indicate that the top two vote getters were the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy with 27.18% of the vote and socialist candidate, Francois Hollande, with 28.63%. These two candidates were followed by National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen, who turned in a surprisingly strong showing with nearly 18% of the first-round vote, and the Left Front’s Jean-Luc Melenchon also performed rather well with just over 11% of the vote. The Democratic Movement’s Francois Bayrou received 9.13%, and the Greens’ Eva Jolly received just over 2% of the vote. The remaining four candidates received a combined vote of 3.75%.

While these results would determine that only Sarkozy and Hollande would make it to the second round, their performances in that round were nonetheless strongly influenced, if not virtually determined, by the electoral alliances they were able to secure after the results of the first round were tallied and studied by endorsed candidates whose desire to become France’s chief executive would end there. Specifically, the days leading up to the second round witnessed François Bayrou, the candidate representing the center and traditionally closer to the right wing, announcing that he would prefer Hollande rather than Sarkozy. Moreover, Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Left Front also declared his strong desire to defeat the incumbent in the second round of voting and, thus, urged his followers to vote for Hollande. These announcements were unfortunate for Sarkozy, but his troubles were exacerbated by Marine Le Pen, candidate for Le Front National, who refused to guide her partisans toward him. This was somewhat surprising because of how Sarkozy had struggled to seduce voters on the extreme right throughout the campaign. In spite of this, Le Pen told her supporters that she would cast un vote blanc (a white ballot) in the second round of voting.

Results from the second round of voting are presented in Table 2, and they indicate that, while the final vote was closer than many had anticipated, Hollande was the clear winner, outpolling Sarkozy by over three percentage points. Turnout in the second round was also over 80% just like of the first round, and what is also interesting is that 5.80% of the ballots cast in this round of voting were either blank or null. This number was somewhat greater than the number by which Hollande outpaced his incumbent rival in round two, but it does suggest that the statement by Marine Le Pen that she would cast un vote blanc (again, a white ballot) most likely hurt the incumbent, Sarkozy, in his efforts to obtain a second term.

The election of the Socialist representative, Francois Hollande as the Fifth Republic’s next president, will no doubt carry both domestic and international implications in that results represents a nation-wide desire to begin a new policy path within France as well as a clear preference to end the austerity that had defined France’s (and Germany’s) approach to solving Europe’s current financial crisis. Following the motto, Le Changement C’est Maintenant (changing takes place now), Hollande pledged to undo a number of domestic reforms implemented by incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy, and, in addition to this, he also noted that he would revisit the strict economic austerity path that Sarkozy and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, had set as the leading policy for the European Union. These goals represent a marked departure fron the path followed by Sarkozy, but how effective the new President will be at achieving changes in domestic and EU-wide policy will naturally depend on substance of what he proposes and how he actually proceeds to get such changes implemented. It will also depend on how well the Socialist party does in the parliamentary elections that are scheduled for June.


[1] The other elections for president of the Fifth Republic were held in 1965, 1969, 1974, 1981, 1988, 1995, 2002,  and 2007.

[2] In the first election held under the constitution of the Fifth Republic, France’s president, Charles de Gaulle, was elected by an electoral college that consisted of members of the parliament, departmental assemblies, and representatives of large and small municipalities.

[3] When one considers how chief executives are elected to office in Europe, Australia, Canada, Japan New Zealand, we see that France is the only advanced nation to use the two-round electoral system.

[4] As Knapp (2004) notes, the French party system is best characterized as “bipolar multipartism.”

[Photo source here.]