“The race is on” – Interview with Gilles Finchelstein

The French presidential elections will take place next April. Opinion polls currently place Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen in the lead, each with around a quarter of the vote. The possible Socialist Party (PS) candidate, on the other hand, is only about 7 percent. What role can the PS play in these elections?

First of all, it should be noted that the elections are still a long way off. At a similar point in the German election, things looked very different from what they were on election night. The volatility of voters is particularly pronounced in France. This means that some caution is needed when it comes to predictions. On top of that, although there has been heated debate about the presidential election in politics and the media, the general public still doesn’t pay much attention to it. As it stands, their interest is even lukewarm than usual. But the fact that far fewer people intend to go to the polls opens up some leeway. Anything can happen before April. What is happening on the right of the political spectrum is particularly interesting. Within a month, Marine Le Pen, who often led the polls, retreated as another right-wing extremist – journalist Éric Zemmour – appeared to steal her votes, at least for the sake of it. instant.

As for the PS, it was stronger than ever in 2012, not so long ago. The Socialists had never had so many representatives at the national, regional and municipal levels as that year. After reaching such heights, however, they fell so hard to earth in 2017 that they risked disappearing without a trace. And all in the space of five years. The PS are in a much better position today. He managed to consolidate his position during the very important municipal elections of 2020 and, in places, even improve it. In the regional elections in June, the PS managed to cling to all the regions where it was already in power. The question is whether they can replicate this success at the national level.

But we are still in the early stages. The PS has not yet officially named Anne Hidalgo. It won’t happen until October 14th. Being mayor of Paris gives him a sort of titular advantage. Apart from that, she defends the confluence of environmentalism and social justice, which is of the utmost importance today. In addition to these substantial assets, she has tremendous personal qualities. Another advantage for her, Emmanuel Macron has turned to the right over the past five years. At least that’s how the French see it, and I think they’re right. Macron does not occupy the social-democratic space these days, as he perhaps still did in 2017.

All in all, it will undoubtedly be a difficult campaign for the PS, because it starts so far behind. But the race is on. So much can happen over the next few months.

Is there a reason Anne Hidalgo is worried about her appointment?

No. There is a broad consensus within the party. In fact, no candidate has received such support in the past 30 years.

Do you think it is possible for the left parties to agree on a common candidate – like Anne Hidalgo – for the presidency?

The French do not want another duel between Macron and Le Pen. At the moment, Macron is unquestionably the favorite of this election. But it is always difficult for an incumbent president to become a candidate again. They should explain what they are planning for their second term and what they failed to accomplish in their first term. It is not an easy undertaking.

One of the decisive political questions will be how many percentage points will be needed to qualify for the second round. In some circumstances it can be very low, maybe even less than 20%, like in 2002. If this happens, the PS has a chance.

I consider that a common candidate on the left is out of the question. First and foremost because of the fundamental differences between the PS and the radical left around Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who intends to stand up. The situation is also complicated between the PS and the Greens. Of course, both parties would like to nominate their own candidate or have already done so.

It also remains to be seen whether voters could opt for a common candidate. Would the green voters say to themselves “Anne Hidalgo is green so I will vote for her so that the left is represented in the second round”? For the moment, the PS and the Greens are around 7 or 8%, but experience tells us that one party will rise and the other will fall. Will the defeated candidate then support the candidate who beat him? It’s hard to imagine.

In the recent regional elections, the turnout was around 35 percent. Are people fed up with politics?

Since the election of Emmanuel Macron and the legislative elections that followed, the turnout in France has fallen to a record level. Since then, not even half of the electorate has voted in a single election. We had never seen that in France. There is a risk that this phenomenon will also affect the presidential election, which typically registers a turnout of around 80%.

According to a recent poll, more than 60% of the French believe that nothing will change for them after the presidential election. It makes no difference to them what the outcome is. France, like many other countries, suffers from a crisis of democracy. This is reflected, among other things, in the low participation rate.

Two scenarios are possible in these circumstances. One is pessimistic: a low turnout in the presidential election, followed by a government that the majority believes does not represent them. But there is also optimism: the French go to the polls when they think something is at stake, and if they understand what the result will change for them and for their country. If it becomes clear during the campaign that this means something, voters will hopefully be motivated to vote.

How does France, where there will be a presidential election next year, see the election of the German Bundestag?

In France, this election was followed with great interest. Angela Merkel was in the headlines. ‘Mutti the Superstar’, with her 16 years as Chancellor, has also left her mark on France.

A number of similarities have occurred to me between developments in Germany and other Western democracies. First, voter volatility: even in a country as stable as Germany, it played a central role. Between June and September, there were fluctuations of 10 to 15 percentage points. It is unprecedented. Secondly, in the meantime there has been a fragmentation of the party landscape, whereas previously two parties dominated the political scene. Today there are a number of important parties. Third, personalization. Even in a country with such a strong parliamentary system, in which parties continue to exert a major influence, the debates and the election campaign were more personalized than ever.

These three factors – voter volatility, fragmentation of the partisan landscape and personalization – were for me, as an external observer, the main lessons of these elections.

How will the handover to Olaf Scholz – assuming he becomes chancellor – affect the Franco-German partnership?

Scholz is hardly a newcomer neither on the European scene nor in France, knowing both since his first incarnations. It will quickly find its marks in both cases. The challenge will be to gradually take Angela Merkel’s place on the European scene. There is a series of issues in Europe that urgently need to be addressed and on which we need a German partner, ranging from defense to fiscal rules to environmental change.

Finally, a global perspective: how do you see the current state of social democracy in the world?

For a long time, we believed that we were moving towards more democracy. In the past 20 years, this has not happened. Instead, authoritarian governments have seized power in a number of world powers with democratic systems. The situation is now more balanced, after this turn to the right. Joe Biden sent a powerful signal after winning on a Democratic platform more to the left than usual. In Latin America, the situation is more complex. But in Europe we can see a positive trend. The Social Democrats are once again in charge in Portugal, Spain and all the Scandinavian countries. We can say that the prospect of the inevitable disappearance of social democracy, which was perfectly valid ten years ago, no longer applies. The developments of recent months and years have given us reason to hope.

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