British Western Front in France, 1981 (cc) National Library of Scotland
ON SUNDAY, FRENCH VOTERS will go to the polls to decide whether Nicolas Sarkozy, the incumbent, or his Socialist challenger — and poll favorite — François Hollande will be president for the next five years. Though it took some time to gather momentum, the campaign has picked up in intensity since the first-round voting on April 22 weeded out eight of the 10 candidates. As is usual in the case of French presidential elections, the campaign has begun to attract heightened attention stateside, accompanied by the usual declarations of surprise that this is so.
The same American interest was in evidence in 2007, when Sarkozy defeated Ségolène Royal (Hollande's ex-companion) for his first term in office. French voters at the time were determined not to repeat the same mistake of 2002, when voter apathy led to the presence in the second round of Jean-Marie Le Pen, a perennial far-right candidate and long-time bête noire of French politics due to his racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic provocations. But part of the campaign's energy was also due to the changeover at the top echelon of French politics. Though both Sarkozy and Royal were experienced politicians, it was the first presidential bid for both of them. Moreover, 2007 marked the first time in 26 years that Jacques Chirac's name did not appear on the first-round ballot as a candidate for president.
If Americans have tuned in this time it is due to three principal storylines that have run through this year's campaign narrative. The first is Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been a particularly visible French president for an American audience. Introduced in 2007 to the U.S. as "Sarko the American," Sarkozy made it one of his first priorities to repair any lingering damage to the Franco-American friendship leftover from the Iraq War. As it has in France and Europe, however, Sarkozy's act quickly wore thin for America.
The second storyline that strikes a chord in the States is the ongoing European debt crisis, which has haunted the continent for more than two years now and continues to threaten not only the eurozone currency and economy, but also the health and stability of the U.S. and global economy. As it became clear that Hollande was promising to revisit the fragile and imperfect consensus that emerged in December in favor of budgetary austerity, the reality dawned that more was at stake than just the resident of Elysée Palace.
Finally, the surprisingly strong first-round showing of Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie and candidate of the far-right Front National (FN) party that she inherited, raised the specter of an unsavory element introducing itself once again ...read more