Challenges Facing the New French President

5 MINS READMay 6, 2012 | 18:06 GMT
Supporters of French President-elect Francois Hollande in Tulle, France, on May 6, 2012.

French Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande defeated incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy in France's May 6 presidential runoff election. The new president will immediately face a series of key commitments in a short period of time after taking office. Within his first month, Hollande will attend multiple crucial international summits that will begin to define the profile of his administration both in Europe and abroad.

Hollande will have to deal with these commitments while still building his administration and campaigning for French parliamentary elections in June. As a result, one can expect more campaign rhetoric than substantial decisions from Hollande in the short term. Meanwhile, the strong performance of France's far-right National Front party in the first round of presidential elections on April 22 highlights a Europe-wide trend of improving performances by parties long relegated to the political margins.

Hollande is expected to take office no later than May 16, so the transition from the Sarkozy government will be brief. It also will be tense, as Hollande cannot expect much help from the previous administration. He will attend key international meetings while still building his Cabinet, which will likely include prominent representatives of the Socialist Party. Given the nascent state of his administration, however, no major foreign policy changes are expected for at least two months.

International Meetings and Campaign Rhetoric

The first of Hollande's long list of meetings will be a highly significant encounter with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The meeting is likely to set the tone for the future relationship between the Continent's two leading powers. Though Merkel openly supported Sarkozy during the presidential campaign, Hollande is likely to be pragmatic in this first meeting. In this regard, while Hollande and Merkel are expected to discuss the future of Franco-German leadership in the European Union, the meeting will primarily serve as a chance for the leaders to build a working rapport.

Hollande will attend the G-8 summit at Camp David from May 18 to May 19 and the NATO summit from May 20 to May 21, where he will meet various world leaders for the first time. Though some of Hollande's future ministers visited London and Washington in the weeks before the election to begin building working relationships with their European and U.S. counterparts, no substantial decisions from France are expected at the two upcoming meetings.

Hollande also will need to handle EU commitments. A meeting among EU finance ministers is scheduled for May 15 and an informal summit of EU leaders to discuss growth is expected in late May or early June. These meetings will provide the first opportunities for the French president to present his concrete plans for domestic and European growth and to gauge other European countries' reactions to his proposals.

During the campaign, Hollande proposed a full renegotiation of Europe's fiscal compact treaty to include new policies designed to stimulate economic growth and job creation. In a pre-emptive move, Germany expressed its willingness to discuss Hollande's proposals and suggested the possibility of including them as an addendum to current EU documents without renegotiating previous agreements. Thus, Hollande will have to decide whether to give priority to the Franco-German alliance, thereby contradicting his campaign promises, or to confront Berlin and insist on a full renegotiation of the fiscal compact. The latter option seems less likely, as it would sink the European Union into more uncertainty — undesirable for both France and Germany in the middle of the financial crisis.

The international engagements coincide with June 10 and June 16 parliamentary elections in France. Hollande and his party can be expected to use inflated rhetoric to attract voters. Still, the new government is likely to remain pragmatic and cautious in its first weeks in office, constrained by the need to build an administration and assess the market reaction to Hollande's victory and France's strategic and economic positions

European Ramifications of a Hollande Win

Hollande's victory aligns with the European trend of punishing incumbent governments. Since the beginning of the economic crisis, Europeans have voted in opposition parties in all parliamentary elections, including polls in the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal and Ireland, among others. Anti-incumbent sentiment is the first phase of popular reaction to perceived mismanagement of the crisis. The second is increasing support for non-mainstream parties.

In this regard, the French elections also highlighted the strength of the French far right. Marine Le Pen performed well in the first round of the presidential election, and Le Pen's National Front could do well in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The party poses a significant electoral threat to the center-right in France, specifically Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party. UMP was created in 2002 in a merger of several center-right parties; over time it essentially became Sarkozy's personal party. UMP, which has just a month to recover from its defeat, will likely lose voters to the Socialists on its left and the National Front on its right.

The National Front is thus poised to establish a presence in the French Parliament despite an electoral system designed to prevent small parties from doing so. The French experience reflects threats to political elites elsewhere in Europe. In Greece's May 6 general election, the country's two largest traditional parties suffered their worst-ever electoral performances, while fringe parties such as the Radical Left Coalition, or Syriza, and far-right Golden Dawn party achieved unprecedented success. In the United Kingdom, the U.K. Independence Party, which advocates withdrawal from the European Union, secured its best-ever electoral result in May 3 local elections, taking votes away from Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party.

These results reflect widespread dissatisfaction with traditional elites that is increasing throughout Europe. The outsider parties are not yet strong enough to become leading forces in their countries' governments. But their popularity is rising, and they are beginning to overtop the barriers imposed by electoral systems designed specifically to marginalize them in political discussions.

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