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Radnor Geopolitical Report

Paris, March 2007



Strategic geopolitical intelligence for decision-makers





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France's election, everyone's future?

by Ken Feltman and Louis-Lyonel Voiron

To understand Europe, you have to be a genius - or French.

- Madeleine Albright

French voters will soon clarify how Europe will continue to integrate political systems?if at all. Depending on how the French vote, political integration and common positions on foreign policy, energy and the environment will remain stopped dead in their tracks?or will be rekindled after the French put everything on hold with a non vote on the European Constitution two years ago.

Why is the French vote so important? Because, whether others like it or not, and no matter how troublesome France seems to be to the United States, France is Europe's natural leader. So where is France about to lead us?

Our analysis of available polling and research suggests that after flirting with dramatic change on the left, and after considering a tougher stance against disruptive violence by a growing underclass, France is headed toward a familiar destination: The middle.

In their last major election, German voters faced clear choices on the left and on the right but managed to navigate the party leaders into forming a centrist governing coalition. Dutch voters forced things to the middle. The Swedes, often bellwethers of change, tipped the balance to a new governing coalition, but stayed within a narrow centrist voting pattern. The French appear poised to do the same.

Americans, especially, tend to see the French election as between an elegant and mysterious woman named Royal and a rather pedestrian bearer of bad news who happens to be the son of a Hungarian immigrant. If elected, Socialist Ségolène Royal would be France?s first woman president and that has caught the attention of the media outside France.

Full disclosure: Radnor has worked with officials of the Sarkozy campaign.

Cassandra Somasundaram of Radnor's London office compiled and analyzed research for this report. Sarah Scotch of Radnor's Washington office translated, rewrote and edited this report.

We appreciate the assistance of the pollsters and researchers in Paris who so generously shared their research with us. The conclusions are ours.

Representing President Jacques Chirac?s center-right party, Nicolas Sarkozy was until last weekend at odds with Chirac and other key party members. Then, at the legal deadline to announce whether he would seek another term, Chirac endorsed Sarkozy and other center-right leaders fell in line behind Sarkozy, who had started out as the decided underdog. So Sarkozy should be headed for victory, right? Maybe.

Let's go back a few months. As the campaign got underway, Royal committed several gaffes. Royal faded. Sarkozy slipped into a narrow lead. He held the lead. The voters remained uneasy. Now their ambivalence is confirmed. They are heading toward the middle. This is not good news for Royal. She is firmly on the left. But Sarkozy may not be enough in the middle to hang on in the end. A centrist is surging.

In common with voters everywhere, French voters are interested in local issues, pocketbook issues. Royal seems to want more of the same, only more of it. Her platform is standard European Social Democratic dogma, recycled and updated to appeal to French voters who are fearful that they are falling behind economically and are endangered by immigrants. Royal?s platform guarantees job security, a minimum income and a continuation of the generous social benefits that have become all but impossible for the government to afford.

Hard line against rioters

As Interior Minister, Sarkozy took a hard line with rioters in the immigrant neighborhoods. His determination to restore order before negotiating alienated many on the left but did little to increase his support from the right-wing, which has been co-opted by extremists such as hard-right National Front Party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was buried by Chirac in the 2002 presidential election after beating a popular Socialist to make the run-off against the incumbent Chirac. Thus, Sarkozy represents change while many voters want to protect their generous social benefits and are less interested in Sarkozy?s discussion of France?s position in Europe and the world.

A high percentage of French voters depend on rigidly state-controlled jobs or government services, including affordable housing and free education. But the welfare system is fraying and French workers seem less willing to pay for social programs that they and their families cannot access, especially as they see immigrants and their children receiving government support. Frustrations are rising and, everywhere, voters express unease over immigration and fear that the good life may no longer be possible. Older voters remark that France is not what it used to be. Indeed, each summer, fewer and fewer French can afford to leave home for their treasured August holiday.

This unhappiness about the situation at home means that the voters are less interested in France?s world role. Concerned for their own personal lot, these voters are expressing unhappiness with a political system that draws candidates from a relatively narrow and elite segment of the population. This benefits Sarkozy, the outsider who did not attend all the right schools. While he has frightened some with his tough law-and-order messages, he has also captured the attention of many who are fearful for their way of life?whether due to declining living standards or the perceived encroachments of immigrants and their children.

Glamour and gaffes

The French love Royal?s glamour but dismiss foreign (especially American) infatuation with her. If elected, Royal will keep the country on its current course. Many French voters think that will lead to further economic decline and further alienation of the French middle class. Thus, when Sarkozy calls for reform, more and more voters listen. They notice, as well, that he seems to match up better as a president who could go toe-to-toe with other world leaders, including the American president. Guillaume Parmentier of the Center for American and Transatlantic Relations says, ?The election will be over whether people want painful change?Sarkozy?or the appearance of change with a woman?Royal.?

Royal was the frontrunner until she attempted to burnish her foreign policy credentials with visits to the Middle East, China and Canada. After a series of stumbles, including praising the Chinese system of justice for its speed and efficiency, Royal floundered and Sarkozy took a narrow but consistent lead. Royal was further damaged when her domestic partner?coincidentally the head of the Socialist Party that nominated her?said that the next government would have to raise taxes.

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Royal was attacked for her own missteps and the unwise outspokenness of her partner. She had hoped to avoid any discussion of whether new taxes would be needed. She had to respond and she responded by veering to the left to placate her Socialist base.

For his part, Sarkozy has blundered but seems unhurt by his blunders. He has been hurt more by rumors and leaks from members of his own party, probably directed by Dominique de Villepin, the current prime minister. De Villepin wanted to have the nomination that Sarkozy secured but fell from voters? favor by inept handling of the student strike last year.

Bayrou: Another way

So French voters were left to decide whether they wanted a glamourous leftist or a tough reformer. They may have found another way. They may have found François Bayrou, running on a centrist platform. The possibility of a Bayrou presidency has taken the French establishment by surprise. The establishment, like most outsiders, saw the election as a battle between right and left, Sarkozy and Royal. But Bayrou is narrowly ahead of Royal and narrowly behind Sarkozy. At first it appeared that Bayrou could finish second, ahead of Royal, and force a runoff with Sarkozy. Now various polls show Sarkozy barely maintaining his narrow lead over Bayrou. Each candidate has about 23 to 26 percent of the prospective vote (candidates need more than 50 percent to avoid a runoff).

Thousands of new voters have registered in the immigrant neighborhoods. Most believe that the new voters intend to vote against the tough talking Sarkozy. This complicates the pollsters' work because these new voters are hard to reach. They may vote for Royal in heavy numbers, tipping things back to her. No one can be sure.

Some Socialists have given up because they believe that Bayrou would easily defeat Royal in a head-to-head match because he would draw from the right as well as the middle, leaving Royal with too small a base for victory. Some Sarkozy supporters believe that Bayrou will sweep a runoff with their candidate because he will take voters from the left to add to his centrist votes. They hope for a Sarkozy-Royal runoff.

French voters often vent their frustration and take out their anger by casting a protest vote for one of the lesser known and unelectable candidates?and they could force another zany runoff such as the French had last time when hard-right Le Pen made the runoff before he was thoroughly drubbed by Chirac.

Self-indulgent voters?

Usually, the French indulge themselves when they vote and many cast meaningless protest votes. This time they may be able to indulge their frustration and elect a president who will govern from the center-right. In a sense, the French have already decided. Twice as many will vote for Sarkozy or Bayrou instead of Royal. The left is losing ground and the battle seems to be over center-right support. Royal could still slip through, of course, but the left's policies seem tired and failed.

Sarkozy and Bayrou share many positions. Should Sarkozy be elected, look to France to reassert leadership within Europe and to seek new partnerships with other countries, including Russia, China, India, Brazil and the United States. Sarkozy impressed members of the Bush administration and Congress when he visited the U.S. in September of last year for the fifth anniversary of 9-11. He was friendly but insistent on getting concessions for France. Bayrou would attempt the same thing. He would, however, devote more attention to internal matters.

Sarkozy could be exactly what the world needs at this time?a conciliator able to get tough in a charming and pleasant way contrasted with the vitriolic disdain meted out by Chirac and his government toward almost everyone, including new member states of the European Union. Bayrou would be a conciliator.

Interested in attending a Radnor political or legislative briefing? Please call Sarah Scotch at +1 202 659-4300 for more information.

Our next briefing, by Louis-Lyonel Voiron, will concentrate on the coming French presidential election.

Most countries want France back in the middle even though France has been such a nettlesome and counterproductive force. Realists within France and outside, too, know that Europe needs French leadership to continue the process toward full integration. The United States knows that France is a vital, if inconveniently irritating, ally.

Inconvenience is a small price to pay for European progress and the U.S. remains committed to European unification. Indeed, the U.S. is the country that is most consistent in its support of unification. The U.S. wants a strong Europe as an ally and recognizes that, since the end of World War II, France has been the natural leader of Europe, like it or not.

To learn what may happen in Europe, and in the rest of the world, stay tuned to the French voters? decision in May. If either Sarkozy or Bayrou prevail, expect France to become a stronger leader within the European Union and the world.

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