The French Presidential Elections 2012

Le Tricolor © Alain Rapoport/PhotoXpress


This post was written two weeks ago on 21st April. Anyone looking at it now will realise that it has been superseded by the news at 20h00 6th May that François Hollande is most likely to be France’s next president. Bonne chance, M. Hollande. I don’t envy you the job.

I very rarely pronounce on political matters on this blog. It’s normally the quickest way to get the green ink brigade going. And I don’t have the vote anyway, not being French. Even so, it can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that tomorrow (Sunday 22nd April) is the first round of the presidential elections in France, which are now held every five years. So here’s the view from La Lune.

Recent elections

We have experienced three presidential elections as residents of France. First there was 2002, when Lionel Jospin, former Prime Minister and Socialist Party candidate was knocked out in the first round. The highest level of abstentions in a first round under the 5th Republic characterised that election – 28.4%. That left sitting President Jacques Chirac and Front National candidate Jean-Marie le Pen slugging it out in the second round. No contest. Nonetheless, le Pen got around 20% of the vote. But the socialists had to grit their teeth and vote for Chirac.

Next up, 2007. For the first time ever a woman, Segolène Royal the socialist candidate, got to the second round. It was a close call between her and Nicolas Sarkozy but he pipped her at the post. Only 16.2% of voters abstained from voting in the first round that year, a measure of how much more fired up people were.

Fast forward to 2012. Ten candidates are in the offing but there are two front-runners: incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP – right wing) and François Hollande (socialist; former partner of Segolène Royal), who has led in the polls for the past 18 months. Unless something momentous and unforeseen happens, the second round will be between these two and the pollsters predict that we will have a Président Hollande on 6th May. Stranger things have happened, though. According to the pre-election polls, Jospin should have beaten Chirac in 2002. 

The rules

Presidential candidates are required to have the backing and signatures of a minimum of 500 maires. Marine le Pen (daughter of Jean-Marie, Front National) struggled to get them, like her father before her. But she managed to squeak under the barrier by the deadline. A variety of other candidates threw in the towel at an early stage this time, e.g. centrist Hervé Morin, aged 50, who claimed to have been present at the Normandy landings in 1944.  

If there is no outright winner in the first round (at least 50% plus one vote), the two candidates with the highest number of votes go through to the second round a fortnight later. The presidential elections in the 5th Republic have always run to two rounds, although Charles de Gaulle won 44% in the first round in 1965. There has been only one socialist president during the 5th Republic (the current French constitution from 1958) – François Mitterand, known familiarly as ‘Tonton’ (uncle).

A damp squib?

For me, this presidential election has been characterised by a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the French, at least around here. This is despite the fact that most of the candidates have claimed to have ‘le peuple’ at the heart of their campaigns: probably the most bandied about phrase of this election. The candidates’ rallies are choreographed set pieces that don’t, in my view, present the full picture. Whatever you might think of Sarkozy and his record since 2007, the issues that any incoming president faces are difficult – intractable, even. No one expects very much to change, regardless of who gets in.

You have to ask yourself why anyone would want the job. François Hollande, in the early days of his candidacy, tried to distinguish himself by saying he was ‘normal’. He soon dropped that. No one who wants to be president is normal, anyway. And Sarkozy wants a second dose, although he seemed very low-key to me when he appeared on the TF1 news a few days ago.

So the tone this time seems muted. I will be very interested to see the actual turnout figures. In some countries, Belgium for example, it is a legal requirement to vote; you are fined if you don’t, unless you have an overriding excuse. In France, you can stay away with impunity. My guess is that a reasonable proportion will do that this time and the pollsters are predicting an abstention rate of 23-30% tomorrow.

French law says that no media can publish any early results from polling stations, or exit polls, until 20h00 on Sunday when all the polling stations have closed. Certain media in Belgium and Switzerland, which are not covered by French law, are planning to publish early results from 18h30 tomorrow. Twitterers will no doubt be Tweeting away before 20h00. Just how many people can the Commission des Sondages (Polls Commission) prosecute, anyway?

The French will be going to the polls again in June, this time to elect députés (members of parliament) to l’Assemblée nationale.   

Copyright © 2012 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved


  1. I’m seriously thinking of taking French citizenship purely to get the right to vote here. i don’t vote in the UK because I don’t think I should, I don’t live there any longer, I don’t pay taxes there any longer so why shoould I have a part in electing the government?


    • I’m with you there. I haven’t voted in the UK since moving here in 1997 because I don’t live there any longer (and they don’t make it easy to vote if you don’t live there, either). Of course, pension rulings etc in the UK still affect me (adversely, mostly, but that would have been the same whether I lived there or not). But I pay taxes in France, run a French business etc, etc. So maybe French citzenship is the answer. Otherwise you are effectively disenfranchised – 15 years out of the UK and you no longer have the right to vote there anyway.


  2. Making voting a legal obligation? Interesting concept. We have our presidential elections in November in the US and I will be voting for the first time! (I didn’t vote in 2008 because I was abroad at the time and I hadn’t registered to vote. Also while you can get an absentee ballots, it is widely reported they do not count absentee ballots unless the race is really close). But I’ll be back in the States in November so I will get to vote!

    And legally I can vote in the French elections but because I live outside of French territory, the absentee ballot rules are so complicated that I decided it wasn’t worth the headache to figure out. My father is voting though, I think he’ll be going to vote at the French Consulate in New York.

    About half of American voters who are eligible to vote (over the age of 18) won’t vote. It’s considered a privilege to vote, not an obligation. If they passed a law making voting a requirement, I feel like that would be seen as limiting one’s freedom of expression. Meaning some people won’t vote because they do not see the need to vote for a candidate they don’t support or they simply don’t care.


    • It’s an interesting point whether voting is a right or an obligation. I think I draw the line at making it a legal requirement but, as I said in reply to Caroline below, I do think it puts democracy in danger if people abstain extensively. It indicates that people think there’s nothing much worth voting for which is quite an indictment of politics and politicians. Democracy is flawed in practice but it’s the best political system we’ve been able to come up with so far.


    • Well a can of worms, or at least a stimulating discussion has been raised by this post!
      My children will be voting at the consulate in Princeton. They received all the candidates’ papers for the election the same day as I did here in their letter box over there. I find that miraculous!

      OK no legal obligation then, but the people that don’t vote aren’t allowed to bitch about the government.


      • Got the news from my father: he voted. 🙂 I’ve never lived in France and while I am a citizen (thanks to my dad), I don’t know if I ever see myself living there. Therefore I don’t find it necessary to vote in those elections. So I’ll stick to the US presidential elections for now since that is where I see myself living in the future. 🙂


        • Good for your father. If you’re never going to live in France it doesn’t seem necessary to vote in France. Since you see yourself living in the US that is where you should think about voting.


      • Let’s call it a stimulating discussion! As far as your children are concerned the administrative systems obviously work well. I agree, though, if you abstain from voting you shouldn’t then complain about what you get in terms of government.


  3. The campaign seemed very enthusiastic to start with but has been very droopy lately. I think Mélenchon will do well tomorrow, although probaby not well enough to oust one of the two favourites unfortunately!


    • It’s really gone off in the past few weeks and has been less than inspiring. I agree that Mélenchon will probably do well but seems unlikely to make the breakthrough.


  4. Not a very inspiring campaign, I agree, and we all know that whoever we elect, life is going to get harder afterwards. Any stringent measures have been postponed so as not to impact upon Sarkozy’s campaign, but they will have to be taken soon.
    I don’t understand abstention. I feel that it would be a good thing to make voting a legal obligation in France. I also feel that as a woman, it is my duty: women have fought hard enough in the past to gain the right to vote. And man or woman, we are going to get stuck with someone, so we might as well have our say while we can.
    As for those who can’t make up their minds, I can’t see that either. Is it the same in other countries, or is it just the French who seem politically immature? OK there’s not a great choice, not a real choice, among those likely to be elected. I personally made up my mind months ago, and shall dutifully toddle off tomorrow to put my slip of paper into the urn, and what is more shall wait for 20h00 without cheating by consulting tweets et cetera.


    • I think abstention is a real threat to democracy and I agree that we should exercise the hard-won right to vote. Unfortunately, it’s a measure of how apathetic people have become about politics. A French person was telling me this week that ‘bulletins blancs’ – which I presume would mean not putting anything into the envelope – are not counted, hence you can’t show abstention in a more active way, if you see what I mean.

      I have to admit that I have not voted in the UK general elections in all the time we’ve been here but it’s not easy to find out how to do it and I feel it’s less relevant to me since I live here. Taking French citizenship is an option, of course.


      • I have never voted in England, since I came here at age 19 and feel that if you vote for a candidate/policy you should at least live in the country to suffer the consequences! I think French nationality is a good idea if you are settled here. Hereagain I have had it for over 40 years. To begin with it made a difference because there was no EEC, now it makes little, except that I have two passports, so that when one is out of date, I always have the other, and, of course, I can vote. I have never missed a vote of any kind in all the time I’ve been here, it really seems to me to be a duty.


        • I still have British nationality but am allowed to vote here in the municipales and the européennes, which I have always done religiously. The longer I live here the more I feel I should take steps to make myself eligible to vote in the other, more significant, elections. After all, I run a French business, contribute to the French economy, pay taxes in France so I ought to have more influence (such as it might be) over things. Not all French people would agree to that, though.


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