- The Washington Times - Monday, March 12, 2007

French President Jacques Chirac announced on national television Sunday night that he would not seek a third term, and despite earlier speculations, he would step down from a career spanning 40 years in politics.

Mr. Chirac’s departure leaves a mixed legacy and a wide open race for the Elysee Palace. In just under two months the French will elect a new president — or quite possibly, perhaps even a Madame Presidente.

The French will go to the polls to vote for their next president on April 22, and if no clear winner is evident, as is often the case, a second round, or a ‘deuxieme tour’ will be held two weeks later. To win in the first round the candidate must garner more than 50 percent of the vote, but given the plentitude of political parties, obtaining 50-plus percent in the first round is a near impossibility.

The deuxieme tour is reserved exclusively for the two candidates who scored the highest points in the first round.

At the moment the various “sondages” — the polls — are all over the place giving either the left or the right or the centrists the upper hand, depending on which poll you choose to believe.

The top contenders are Nicolas Sarkozy for the conservatives with 28 percent, Segolene Royal from the Socialist Party and Francois Beyrou representing the centrists, each holding at 24 percent. The other wild card is the extreme-right’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, although he has indicated he has so far been unable to gather the required 500 signatures from mayors around the country to stand as a candidate.

The biggest problem in this two-round voting system — particularly for the left — is that it splits the vote. The first round allows a plethora of leftist parties, ranging from the Communist Party to the Trotskyites and others, to mark their political turf. Most do not stand a chance in any of Dante’s seven circles of hell to win the presidency. But it’s the political equivalent of a dog marking its territory.

What this exercise accomplishes is to place the smaller parties in positions of power with the leading candidate, horse-trading votes for a potential ministerial portfolio in the next government.

Sometimes, however, this game can turn quite dangerous, as it did in the 2002 elections where votes from the left were so divided among more than a half-dozen candidates that the leading Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, ended up in third place, behind the conservative Jacques Chirac and the far-right candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen. As a result Mr. Jospin and the left were eliminated from the second tour, leaving the race to the right and the extreme right.

For Mr. Jospin and his Socialists, as well as for the rest of the socialist-communist alliance, it was a complete disaster.

To make sure Mr. Le Pen would not pass, the left urged their supporters to vote for Mr. Chirac. For many in the left this was a hard pill to swallow; vote for Mr. Chirac or risk having Mr. Le Pen as president. Seen as the lesser of two evils, political leader on the left told their supporter to go and vote for Mr. Chirac. “Put a clothes peg on your nose if you have to, but go vote for Chirac,” one leftist leader instructed his party members.

Mr. Chirac won the 2002 elections with an overwhelming majority, thanks to the left. But now after 12 years of sweet and sour leadership, Mr. Chirac seems about ready to step down. At 74, and with his popularity at an all-time low, his chances of a re-election are slimmer than models parading Christian Dior’s latest spring collection.

The post-Chirac era will give France its first president born after World War II, (unless Mr. Le Pen manages an upset), finally bringing to a close a painful and embarrassing chapter in modern French history. Mr. Chirac did recognize the role played by the French state under Vichy in helping Nazi Germany round up and exterminate French Jews during World War II.

Today’s candidates were all born after the war. Segolene Royal is 53, Nicolas Sarkozy is 52 and Francois Bayrou is 55.

So what does the future hold for France and what does it mean for French-U.S. relations, particularly regarding the war in Iraq?

A socialist victory by Miss Royal would most certainly not benefit the United States as she would seek to reassert France’s independent stance from U.S. policy, especially when relating to the Middle East. Not that Mr. Chirac was a great supporter of the Bush administration’s war. The French president’s defiant “non” to the war in Iraq left President Bush without U.N. support, souring U.S.-French relations for years.

“War is always a last resort. It is always proof of failure. It is always the worst of solutions, because it brings death and misery,” Mr. Chirac said before U.S. and British troops began the invasion of Iraq.

Mr. Sarkozy would prove the friendliest toward Washington. He has adopted a tough stand on immigration, particularly vis-a-vis Arab and Islamist movements. Hoping to woo voters away from Mr. Le Pen, Mr. Sarkozy announced his (Orwellian) ideas to create a ministry of immigration and a ministry of national identity.

As for Mr. Bayrou, his foreign policies remain somewhat of an enigma.

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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