With each passing week, the competition focuses more clearly on 2 main contenders, Ms. Ségolène Royal, designated on 16th of November by the Socialist Party (PS) as its official candidate, and Mr. Nicolas Sarkozy, Senior Minister in charge of home affairs, who is also the president of the majority party UMP, which is due to designate its official flag-bearer in January 2007.
Over the past 2 weeks, the position of Ms. Royal has been reinforced. At the "primary election" held by the PS, she beat Mr. Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Mr. Laurent Fabius by such a margin that she can now rest assured no other candidate will pop up within her party. She also obtained the support of a smaller left-of-center party, and has just made a deal with Mr. Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a maverick politician, long a Minister under President François Mitterrand. And further to the left, the smaller parties (Greens, Communist Party, etc.) have found it very difficult to designate their candidate for the presidential elections (Ms. Marie-George Buffet, the leader of the Communist Party, did not manage to impose herself), and in fact have not yet reached agreement on the contents of their "joint programme", which purports to be "the anti-liberal choice" for France.
On the 30th of November, the Chairman of UMP, Mr. Nicolas Sarkozy entered the contest by declaring he would be in the running, and he did so a few weeks before his party is expected to designate its official candidate. Perhaps because this was successfully experimented at the PS, a sort of party "primary" is now being held by UMP, in the form of 3 debates open to card-holders. But whereas Ms. Royal now has the advantage of a clear path before her at the PS, at UMP possible contenders have not yet thrown the gauntlet. Mrs. Michèle Alliot-Marie, Minister of defence, has indicated her "willingness" to run for the presidency, but has so far refrained from saying so officially. Mr. Dominique de Villepin, the Prime minister, and possibly Mr. Jean-Louis Borloo, Minister of health and social affairs, could also wish to challenge Mr. Sarkozy. And although Ms. Bernadette Chirac, the wife of the President, in an interview in late November, did not exclude her husband seeking a further term in office, most observers think his age and his rating in the polls rule out such a prospect.
At this stage, 2 patterns are noteworthy. First, the PS has managed to clarify its internal situation, has designated a very popular figure as its official candidate, and has recently won the support of other left or left-of-center parties. Second, at the majority UMP party, clarity has not yet been achieved, neither in terms of designating its official candidate, nor in terms of support from like-minded parties.
On the right and centre-right. Mr. François Bayrou (chairman of UDF, the party founded by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing) declared himself a candidate on 2nd of December, and he is expected to obtain 8 to 12% in the first round of the election.
A dark horse could tip the balance either way: Mr. Nicolas Hulot, well known for his television programmes about the environment, has set forth an agenda in which environment matters play an important role. He has brandished the "threat" of being a candidate himself, if he is not satisfied that the main political parties are serious enough about these topics. He is being wooed by the Greens, by the PS, and by UMP. Mr. Sarkozy has even announced that if Mr. Hulot supported him for the presidential election, the former TV journalist would be given a prominent post as Vice Prime minister -this would be new in France- to oversee all public policy related to sustainable development.
The extremes, both right and left, could constitute a hazard for the main contenders. Mr. Jean-Marie Le Pen is credited with a possible 12% or more in the first round. Mr. Philippe de Villiers, cultivating an anti-EU streak, weighs a few percentage points. The candidates from the Greens and other small parties are predicted to have a more limited effect. As for the French Communist Party (PCF), which at its zenith three decades ago had a following of 20%, this time it is predicted to run at barely 5%.
At this stage, Ms. Royal and Mr. Sarkozy are still the main contenders. Whatever their differences in policy and in style, both are seen as meeting the expectations of a growing proportion of voters who call for a generation change in French politics. And interestingly, none of the declared or likely candidates has so far even hinted at the necessity of revisiting the institutional balance of power in France, for instance by increasing parliamentary powers, or by acheiving a better balance between the two executive branches (President, Government). Keep in touch: the coming weeks are expected to quicken the pace of the campaign.
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