The year is 2002. Polls are showing (not for the first time by the way) Jacques Chirac’s chances for winning the presidential election as slim. Taking into consideration the suggestion of his closest advisor (and daughter), Claude Chirac, the President starts his campaign earlier than usual. He announces his candidacy in his distinctive manner – unsophisticatedly, with several jokes, at a press conference on a completely different topic, managing to surprise everybody again. Most of all the polls’ favourite – left-wing coalition government’s Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.
The ex-First Secretary of the Socialist Party is not ready to announce his candidacy yet as he has not secured the support of the coalition partners. Actually this is nothing new to French presidential elections. The fragmentation of France’s political landscape makes electing a president on the first round impossible, as it is quite common for parties from a single political family to nominate separate candidates and even two candidates from different fractions in the same party running against each other. Last such example was back in 1995 when the right-wing nominated Jacques Chirac and Édouard Balladur in the first round. Logic shows the best of the left and right candidates survive for the second round. It is a different reality in 2002, however, and logic is not what it used to be.
Elections are held in a highly agitated environment, the media are full of negativism, and the political space is generously partitioned into parties and partlets. As many as 16 candidates manage to collect the required 500 signatures from elected representatives of state or local governments. All five leftist parties of the government coalition nominate their own candidates, the right-wing have four other candidates besides president Chirac. The far-right parties have two of their own.
Having avoided for months answering whether he will run in the elections, Prime Minister Jospin chooses the central news of France 2 to announce it. News anchor David Pujadas recalls Lionel Jospin, famous for his composure, was quite nervous. And the phrase he uses – m'ébrouer dans le champs de la democratie – sounds like coming from a medieval text. Jospin’s words sound so artificial. During the campaign Jacques Chirac’s name is in every sentence of Jospin’s speeches. The president is dubbed old, tired, and worn-out by his main competitor. Jacques Chirac replies with a smile and talks about business, economic development, investments. After a referendum the presidential mandate is cut from seven to five years, so it matches the one of Parliament and avoids cohabitation of right-wing and left-wing in power. Jean-Marie Le Pen is named insane when on April 17 of 2002 he announced he would run in the second round, because Lionel Jospin is going to lose a lot of votes due to numerous leftist nominees.
On the evening of April 21 TF1 and France 2 are broadcasting their election coverage. Patrick Poivre d'Arvor and David Pujadas have known for over an hour what was happening but until 20:00 they could only hint about “something extraordinary”, “a historic event”, and “a huge surprise”. At 20:01 however, Pujadas’s words come out with a large dose of uncertainty: “Jacques Chirac 20%, Jean-Marie Le Pen looks like going to the second round”. Remembering that night all journalists remark: “If anyone told you they were expecting this they are a big fat liar”. The results come out shocking. Jacques Chirac 19.88%, Jean-Marie Le Pen 16.86%, Lionel Jospin 16.18%.
Workers' Struggle receives almost 6%, centrist François Bayrou close to 7, Jean-Pierre Chevènement (deputy to Prime Minister Jospin) a little over 5, similar is the result of the Greens, also a part of the government. Hunters and Fishermen’s party and the Revolutionary Communist League each receive a little over 4%. Three more right-wing candidates gather between 2% and 3%, so do the French Communist Party and the Radical Party of the Left.
Events between the two rounds have nothing in common with the pre-election campaign. There are no TV debates between the two candidates and each evening thousands of citizens demonstrate against the approaching threat of a far-right president. The unthinkable is happening. All right-wing and centre parties unite in the Union for Presidential Majority, while Socialists, Greens, Communist, Radicals, and Revolutionaries support a Gaullist Movement candidate. Jacques Chirac wins the second round by the record 82%.
The 2002 lesson seems learned. The term “useful vote” appears in French politics and the parties of the same political family organized internal elections in 2007 and 2012. However in 2015 there appears the risk that the combination of disappointment in the weakest right (Sarközy) and left (Hollande) presidents in the history of the Fifth Republic, combined with the faded memories of 2002 will bring unexpected results. At the last presidential elections not only the ultra-right, but also the ultra-left candidates passed the symbolic threshold of 10%. At the 2014 European elections the Union for a Popular Movement became a leading political power in France with 25% of the votes. The right is torn with controversy, despite Sarközy’s return, or perhaps because of it. Parties in the center are at least four and the left was never really unified.
Many see the possibility of return to politics of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (ex-boss of the IMF, prosecuted for sexual crimes), Lionel Jospin and even Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. Bringing political mummies back to life is hardly the best move against the rising wave of ultra-right protest vote. Surely the right and left have the experience of 2002 and will unite in a common republican front against Marine Le Pen in the second round. What happens if the far-right and far-left candidates are the ones that make it to the second round, though? Sarközy played the immigrant card in 2012 and lost. Hollande promised to fight unemployment and failed.
It is often said that certain elections are a test for society. The 2017 elections have a matriculation status for French society. That is why campaigning has already begun with two whole years to go. The left will try to come out of the “Hollande” crisis and the battle for the internal nomination will be fierce. Hollande, his ex-wife and failed 2002 candidate Ségolène Royal, ex-mayor of Paris Delanoë, Martine Aubry… Not forgetting Manuel Valls, who they say is like the color white – goes with everything – in London he is “pro-business”, at the May 1st march he is an Antimondialiste, and a liberal in Brussels. It is a double-edged sword, but a sword none the less, and a sharp one at that.
Internal elections will happen in the right as well, while the rightist will do well to come up with a common candidate with the centrists. Sarközy is favourite, but surprises are possible. We are after all talking about France, where favourites almost always lose and often (Jospin 2002, Balladur 1995) do not reach the second round. One thing is sure, there will be intrigue in every sense of the word. And results are important not only to France, but to Europe.
*Alexander Nikolov is a blogger, living in France