However the French vote Sunday April 22 in the first round of their presidential election, or in the runoff May 6, the long-term winners in terms of real political change will be neither the putative conservative Nicolas Sarkozy nor the Socialist Party's François Hollande. They will be the newly puissant populist parties of far right and left. If you combine the expected votes of the right-wing National Front and the new, communist-backed Left Front, they would outnumber those of either Sarkozy or Hollande. In fact, the National Front already dominates France's youth vote: with 26 percent, more 18-to-24-year-olds plan to vote for it than any other party.
Hardly surprising then that a large majority of French voters, disgusted with politics as usual, say flatly they don't want the predictable Hobson's choice runoff between Sarkozy and Hollande. The rejection cuts across class, age, professional and even political lines including former Gaullists and socialists: they no longer trust the established mainstream parties. While the two mainstreamers have bobbed and weaved for months with tired variations on the theme of a chicken in every pot -- most appropriate in the land of Henry IV, the first to pledge a poule au pot for every mother's son in the realm -- the fiery populist speeches of the National Front's Marine Le Pen and the Left Front's Jean-Luc Mélenchon, challenging what they term a corrupt economic and political system, make them the revelations of this campaign.
What they reveal is a hunger for something other than routine rhetoric -- hardball, edgy programs that tackle France's grievous socio-economic problems head-on and restore the feeling of distinct national and political identity eroded by uncontrolled immigration and globalization. Even if those proposals, on close examination, sometimes constitute an insult to the intelligence of the Gaul in the street. Or pander with simple solutions to complex problems. Or appeal to racial and class conflict.
What the French apparently don't want in 2012, whatever he promises, is five more years of Nicolas Sarkozy. Some 64 percent disapprove of him, a much worse figure than the 46 percent disapproval rating of Valérie Giscard d'Estaing in 1981, the only Fifth Republic president who failed to win a second term. Sarkozy is expected at least to make it into the runoff. But polls point to a loss to Hollande by up to 16 points then -- even former president Jacques Chirac of Sarkozy's own UMP party says he will vote for Hollande. Sarkozy, who exudes nervous energy and never shies from a fight, but has little political flair, has spent his flailing campaign 1) apologizing for the mistakes of his first term and promising to be different if re-elected, 2) casting himself as the only captain with the experience to steer the good ship France through the current economic crisis, 3) telling the French they should be more like the Germans (a real vote-getter, that), and 4) seeing that none of this worked, rebranding in seeming panic to an unconvincing hard-right campaign as "the people's candidate" speaking for the "silent majority" against Parisian elites.
This last tactic shows the burgeoning influence of the National Front, expected to garner 17 percent or more of the vote. (Pollsters admit the figure could be much higher, many NF supporters hesitating to say they favor the politically incorrect Marine Le Pen.) Borrowing liberally from its playbook, Sarkozy has jumped from one hot-button issue to another almost daily in a shifting, carpet-bomb campaign.
Depending on which way the wind was blowing that day, he vowed to cut immigration from the current 200,000 a year to half that, pass new security laws to protect against the Islamist threat, keep Muslim halal meat out of public school canteens, turn the screws on welfare abusers, protect French products from foreign competition, tighten border controls even if the European Union objected -- all proposed months ago by Marine Le Pen. In his drive to siphon off votes wherever he can, Sarkozy even finds nice things to say about the Trotskyite head of the other populist party, the pugnacious Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who calls for things like a "citizens' revolution" against capitalism and "civic insurrection" against just about everything. "Concerning his ideas on the human level," Sarkozy said coolly if cryptically the other day, "I must say I have no complaints." Another example of his political tone deafness: the Left Front's rabid supporters would rather take their party underground than back a bourgeois capitalist like Sarkozy.
Socialist François Hollande, too, winks in the direction of populist voters, mainly of the Left Front. Though personally mild-mannered and moderate, at his political rallies he punches the air as he declares that his main enemy is the world of finance: "I will be the president of a republic much stronger than the markets," he vows, "a France stronger than finance." He promises to "profoundly reform" France to keep it the most generous welfare state in the world, unpleasant economic realities notwithstanding.
Lest the left populists suspect he is merely another capitalist tool, a conservative sheep in liberal wolf's clothing -- after all, on a campaign visit to London, Europe's financial center, he assured audiences, "I am not dangerous" -- Hollande pledges to implement a confiscatory 75 percent tax rate on personal income over $1.30 million. (Mélenchon, who sees the capitalist U.S. as "the world's primary problem," tops him with his rabble-pleasing plan to confiscate personal income over $470,000.) To signal his independence from a domineering Uncle Sam, he would pull French troops out of Afghanistan by the end of this year, two years ahead of the NATO schedule. That, he hopes, will help persuade Left Front believers to vote for him after Mélenchon, credited with about 14 percent in the first round, fails to make it to the runoff.
The French turn to populism actually comes late compared with the rest of Europe. From the True Finns in Finland to the Northern League in Italy, the British National Party to the Danish People's Party and emerging regional movements across the Continent, voters increasingly have been turning away from traditional parties that they feel are out of touch. Cozy consensus, comfortable right-left alternation with a wink and a nudge are out, fragmentation, rejection and the quest for new answers are in. Angry and often incoherent, the populists represent what Pierre Poujade, a now-forgotten French post-war populist, called "the ripped-off, lied-to little people." The similarities to the Tea Party are obvious. But, being European, these populists typically are more concerned about a loss of national sovereignty and control over their own affairs due to the European Union. They are also further along in organization, structure, and ideology.
With voters casting their protest ballots for a field of 10 candidates in the first round before getting down to the business of choosing between the two frontrunners in the second, surprises are distinctly possible on both ballots. One obvious joker is abstention: results could be skewed by the lowest turnout in years, due partly to much of the country being on sacrosanct spring school vacation. But while France's new populists don't seriously expect Marine Le Pen or Jean-Luc Mélenchon to be president come May, they are gunning for a healthy bloc of seats in the follow-up parliamentary elections in June. That could begin to change the face of French politics.