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France: Voters Still Unexcited About Presidential Choice

The months-long campaign for 21 April's first round of balloting in the French presidential election ends at midnight tonight, with a substantial majority of voters saying they are as unexcited and uninvolved as when it began. Abstentions could prove to be greater than ever before, and the record number of 16 candidates on the ballot is expected to cut heavily into support for the two front-runners, incumbent conservative Jacques Chirac and Socialist Prime Minster Lionel Jospin.

Paris, 19 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Tens of millions of French men and women will go to the polls Sunday (21 April) to vote in the first round of the country's presidential election, but they are quite likely to be proportionally less than ever before.

The voters will choose among a record 16 candidates. They range from two far-right parties, Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front and a front splinter group, and three parties calling themselves Trotskyist on the extreme left.

In between, there is someone for virtually every voter predilection -- three ecological candidates, the head of the declining Communist Party, a maverick "republican" socialist, two centrists, the perennial representative of the country's hunters' party, and the first black woman candidate.

The two presidential front-runners, incumbent conservative Jacques Chirac and Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, have seen their popularity diminish in the polls to about 20 percent each. If that proves true on 21 April, their low tolls will set another record, this one for minimal support in first-round balloting.

In part, the large number of other choices available is responsible for Chirac and Jospin's low ratings. But in larger part, say the voters themselves, the front-runners are the problem. Almost two-thirds (more than 60 percent) of respondents in several recent polls said that Chirac and Jospin had run uninspiring and unexciting campaigns. About the same number said they trusted neither of them because they had "not fulfilled promises" made when they were elected, respectively, head of state and head of government.

Our correspondent spoke with Jean-Luc Parodi, a French political scientist who is an expert in analyzing poll results and the mood of voters. He says abstentions on Sunday are likely to be proportionately somewhat more numerous than ever before. He notes that would continue a gradual decrease over the past 15 years in the number of French voters in all elections -- municipal, cantonal, regional and parliamentary, as well as presidential.

But, Parodi goes on, there is at least one new major element in this year's presidential election:

"The novelty of this election is that it comes at the end of a [five-year] "cohabitation" [between the left and the right, which has created a paradox. That is, that the cohabitation's two protagonists, the outgoing president and the outgoing prime minister, have been able in preceding years to achieve complete dominance of their respective camps. Chirac has no real competitor on the right and Jospin no competitor on the left. The result is that they are "pre-qualified" for the run-off vote [on May 5]. And in that there is another striking paradox: Because, in many people's minds, the two [front-runners] are already pre-qualified, pre-qualified because they have certain advantages and a core-group of supporters -- so, in fact [the reasoning goes}, it's not worthwhile voting for them in the first round."

In any case, Parodi and other analysts point out, the first round of French presidential and parliamentary balloting has traditionally served voters to "send a message" as much as to qualify candidates for the second round. Parodi says that the "reasoning" of many first-round voters seeks to demonstrate the insufficiencies in the two front-runners.

There has also been what is termed an increasing "fractionalization" of French voting patterns over the past two decades. In most first-round balloting, the number of parties and candidates has grown steadily. That is true, too, for elections to the European Parliament, which in France are run under a one-ballot proportional representation scheme. But when it comes to second-round presidential or legislative voting, the French make their real choice between the two candidates.

Some French and foreign commentators (including "Los Angeles Times" syndicated columnist William Pfaff) have suggested a sort of post-election catastrophe scenario for France. They say that few of the 16 presidential candidates, and certainly not Chirac or Jospin, have proposed any fundamental changes needed in what they see as a "declining" France.

These commentators speak of a violence-ridden, stagnant country unwilling to undertake needed structural economic reforms, refashion fundamentally a declining educational system, and put a cap on a top-heavy government bureaucracy that makes one out of every five workers a civil servant. All this, they say, could lead to a "revolution in the streets" similar to that of May 1968.

Parodi says that, whatever France's problems, he does not believe in any such catastrophic scenario:

"I don't believe it because there is in the principle of the [presidential] election] an element of legitimization. The French like their presidential election [which has been held by popular vote since 1965]. It's they who choose the one who will lead them. Thus, today, we're still in a climate of moroseness, or talk of it in any case, before the first round. But afterwards, we're going to see, whoever is the winner, a sort of remaking of the president [elected by a] majority and [therefore] legitimate."

Parodi is inclined to think that the newly elected president will then win solid backing for his political camp in the parliamentary elections due next month (2 and 9 June). If so, he will then possess what the analyst calls an additional "capital of confidence." That's another reason why, Parodi says, there is unlikely to be a mass anti-establishment movement against a popularly elected president.

How France will change after the elections, if at all, may become clearer in the two weeks before the presidential run-off vote. There will be a televised debate between the two candidates, and in campaign appearances as well as on TV each will have to spell out more clearly than he has until now what changes he intends for France.

Polls have consistently shown Chirac and Jospin virtually 50-50 in the second round. Their behavior and rhetoric in the coming fortnight will surely determine the outcome.