One of the worst-kept secrets in the Obama administration (and one of its few areas of agreement with Republicans in Congress) is its hope that Nicolas Sarkozy is reelected president of France in May 2012. Along with being someone Obama is in regular contact with on the European economic turmoil, Sarkozy has usually worked in sync with the last two American Presidents on foreign policy issues: opposing the Russian invasion of Georgia in ’08, maintaining a military presence in Afghanistan until 2014, and most recently, cobbling together the NATO force that was key to deposing Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi.
While Sarkozy has not turned out to be the conservative swashbuckler Republicans thought, they generally admire the French President for standing up to the unions in his country by raising the retirement age and taking a hard line on illegal immigration.
Most importantly, Republicans and Democrats agree that the 56-year-old Sarkozy has healed what was a seriously dysfunctional relationship between his country and the U.S. before he took office in 2007.
Moreover, few in American politics know much about the two top vote-getters in Sunday’s primary for the Socialist nomination to oppose Sarkozy next year. More than 2 million French voters worldwide participated in the 96-year-old Socialist Party’s first-ever open primary, former Party First Secretary (Chairman) Francois Hollande led the six-candidate pack with 39% of the vote, followed by Lille Mayor Martine Aubry with 31%.
The two will meet in the runoff Oct. 16, the winner of that contest to meet Sarkozy and other presidential candidates in the general election in May.
Numerous polls have shown either Hollande or Aubry easily defeating Sarkozy. Like other leaders of European countries plagued by fiscal uncertainty, the French president gets much of the blame from voters. In addition, a string of scandals involving cash for political favors have touched several in the ruling center-right party, including the best man at Sarkozy’s wedding.
But no one writes Sarkozy off. And that has less to do with him and more to do with the Socialists themselves. Their party last won a presidential election in 1988, when voters reelected Francois Mitterand, the only Socialist president since the founding of France’s Fifth Republic.
Why the Left Could Lose Again
“The French Socialist Party is at the risk of dying out,” wrote Evry (France) Mayor Manuel Valls, himself a Socialist, last year. “While capitalism is being widely called into question by the global recession, the left has not been able to remodel the system. [emphasis added].”
Like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in their respective parties in the U.S. and U.K., Mayor Valls challenged his Socialist Party’s left-leaning tendencies and called for a “new doctrine” that included an acceptance of a more globalized economy and a rise of individualism, which meant, he said, that a step backward from “free enterprise fundamentalism” to a stronger state hand in the economy “is neither possible nor desirable.” Valls even wanted to scrap the term “Socialist” and come up with “a more appropriate name” for the party.
For his fresh vision and new ideas, Valls got single digits and fifth place in Sunday’s presidential primary. The party instead turned to familiar warhorses Hollande and Aubry, both of whom take the party’s traditional left-of-center line. For all the criticism that he is “soft left,” Hollande (his party’s longest-serving leader after 11 years) was quoted in ’07 as saying, “I don’t like rich people.” The 60-year-old Aubry, daughter of former European Commission President Jacques Delors, crafted France’s 35-hour working week when she was labor minister in the last Socialist government.
The dilemma for the left, concluded Financial Times political reporter Quentin Peel, “is that its core constituency has become identified with public service workers, as the old blue-collar working class has shrunk. It is a constituency that has a vested interest in high taxation and a large public sector. And that is not a popular platform to win an electoral majority in any European country.”
All told, as vulnerable as he may appear now, President Sarkozy may well win reelection next year—not so much because of anything he has done, but because his leading opposition is stuck in the past. The question, then, would be what happens to the French Socialist Party following a fourth straight defeat in the presidential election, this time at the hands of a president most of its members loathe.