2012: French presidential semiotics

On Sunday, April 22, the first round of the 2012 presidential elections will take place in France and its overseas territories.

Two spoiler candidates have emerged to Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande: Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Front de Gauche) and Marine Le Pen (Front National).  Polls show them to be relatively close — between 13% and 17% — with Mélenchon edging Le Pen.

A number of French voters are still undecided. Many plan to stay at home because they do not like the candidates or their platforms. Others will vote blanc — put a blank piece of paper in the voting envelope. Others will vote nul — spoiling their ballot — by placing more than one piece of paper in the envelope or voting for more than one candidate, among other methods.  In either case blanc and nul votes are counted as abstentions, officially called non-expressed (non-exprimé) votes.

An informal online group following the elections, Club Elysée, notes that the school holidays might also affect the turnout for the first round. France is divided into three school year zones, each of which has different start and stop dates as well as holidays. This year, Zone A’s spring break finishes on April 22. Zone B’s will have just started and Zone C will be right in the middle.

The prevailing theme in this election is the vote utile, from the start. The French are known for using the first round to express their views and the second for voting more seriously. Therefore, the two-round system often produces surprising results, such as in the case ten years ago, where Jacques Chirac, Jean-Marie Le Pen and Lionel Jospin finished first, second and third, respectively.  In that case, the runoff was between Chirac and Le Pen, with Chirac winning easily.

This is why in 2012, many political activists see the vote utile as playing a crucial role in the first round.  The Socialists (PS and others) are concerned that Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s scandal in 2011 weakened their image. Until then, DSK had been widely tipped to win the PS primary. The Socialists are also concerned about François Hollande’s lack of oomph. His Front de Gauche rival Jean-Luc Mélenchon said Hollande reminded him of a ‘pedalo captain in a storm‘.

On the other side of the spectrum, Sarkozy’s UMP party is concerned about the constant barrage of negative coverage the leftist press has given him and his administration since the 2007 election. They also believe that they can lure a number of Marine Le Pen’s voters by taking a hard campaign line on hot topics like the Schengen Agreement. In reality, on RMC (Radio Monte Carlo) discussions, several callers from leftist working-class households have said that one spouse supports Mélenchon and the other Le Pen. Whatever their political persuasion, French voters know that Sarkozy has delivered little on his 2007 campaign promises. (If you asked me what his accomplishments were, I would say that he remarried and fathered another child.)

Votes are divided even in political households. Marianne, the leftist newsweekly, recently reported that Jacques Chirac’s family will be voting very differently (March 31 – April 6, 2012 issue, p.21). Chirac, who still feels betrayed by Sarkozy’s support for Edouard Balladur as presidential candidate in 1995, will be voting for François Hollande as is daughter Claude. Wife Bernadette will vote for Sarkozy. Chirac’s son-in-law Frédéric is leaning towards centrist candidate François Bayrou.

So, how are the top four candidates luring voters? The campaign semiotics are telling, and Marianne had an instructive one-page feature (March 17-23, 2012, p. 32). RMC has also discussed it at length:

Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP) has made good use of the French tricolore in his campaign.  Supporters at his rallies wave large flags, and Sarkozy is careful to address ‘the people of France’ in each speech. His campaign team also use a lot of dark blue to indicate gravitas and tradition. At his weekend meeting in Place de la Concorde in the centre of Paris on Sunday, April 15, he is said to have gathered 100,000 supporters from near and far for an outdoor rally. An RMC talk-show panelist who was there said that, whilst the French president has no discernible ‘cult of personality’, he does radiate a certain quiet energy which makes people pay attention to what he says. Gaël Sliman, director of polling firm BVA Opinion, told RMC’s Grandes Gueules on April 16 that Sarkozy knows he can no longer afford to make promises, however, he projects himself as a safe pair of hands and as a statesman with experience.

Marine Le Pen (FN) also uses a lot of blue in her campaign — bleu marine (navy blue) — principally in banners with her name or ‘Marine Présidente’ in white letters. She has worked hard to detoxify her father’s party by presenting a serious backdrop to motivated, if small, rallies.  She approaches the podium with energy, smiling broadly and waving enthusiastically. She has been careful to steer the public image of the FN towards that of a legitimate third-party alternative which respectable people can support. She has taken great steps to tone down her earlier rhetoric on dual nationality (which she would scrap) and returning to the French franc (proposing 1FF for every €1), focussing instead on improving the standard of French education and ensuring employment security for low-wage earners, small business owners and farmers.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon (FdG) has the most radical campaign motif — red everywhere. A commentator on RMC on April 16 said that Mélenchon has done the unthinkable; within weeks he has managed to ‘defrost’ the French Communist Party (PCF). Mélenchon, on Jean-Jacques Bourdin’s show earlier that morning, said that he is a man ‘without a country’. He doesn’t mean what Sarkozy or Le Pen voters would understand by that phrase — that today’s France is lost to them — but that he has no national allegiance.  His supporters wave large red flags whilst he encourages them to storm the Bastille once again in a spirit of revolution. His goal is to bring together all strands of leftist political parties and galvanise them into militant activism. In interviews, such as Bourdin’s, he comes across as angry and abrupt, refusing to answer questions then denying that the interviewer asked him anything.  Even if he is not in the run-off on May 6, he has said he doesn’t mind. His objective is to push far-left — especially Communist — candidates forward in the legislative elections, which will follow the presidential elections (Marianne, April 7-13, 2012, pp 42-43).

François Hollande (PS) started out with large white flags (of surrender?) with his name written in small red letters and a small Socialist rose emblem (Marianne, March 17-23 2012 issue, p. 32). Not impressive. After Mélenchon’s campaign gathered more supporters and more traction, Hollande’s strategists switched the white background to red for some flags and made the print on the white flags larger. By doing this, Hollande’s campaign team are trying to lend him more of Mélenchon’s strength, but Hollande has been around for years and the French know that he is congenial not combative. This could be his downfall.

I don’t know who will win the first round on April 22, although my prediction (on April 16) is that it could well be Hollande, Sarkozy and Mélenchon in that order. Should Sarkozy finish in third place, we are looking at a run-off between a Socialist with big spending plans and a self-confessed Trotskyite who proposes a Sixth Republic ‘for the people’. If so, be afraid, be very afraid.

In closing, here’s an interesting fact: all except Sarkozy have followed the Dukan diet prior to the campaign (Marianne, March 31 – April 6, 2012, p. 63).

More to come on Hollande and Mélenchon in the next few days.  In the meantime, you can find out more about all ten presidential candidates and their platforms here and here. It’s worth noting that six are leftists, including the ‘conspiracy theory’ candidate Jacques Cheminade.

4 comments for “2012: French presidential semiotics

  1. Voice of Reason
    April 16, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    You write ‘vote utile’, and my brain keeps translating it as ‘la marche futile’ from Monty Python.

  2. April 16, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    Yes, very good take. I check the French dailies … er … daily and it’s not an open shut case by any means. The 2007 election was live-blogged from my place and probably will be again this time. I’ll be checking your take as well.

    As for the desired result – talk about a mirror image of out situation here – can’t vote for any of them. Have we ever been so unrepresented?

    • April 16, 2012 at 4:50 pm

      Thank you, James, for the interest! I shall look forward to following your blog on the day!

      You might be interested to know that the results this year will be going to foreign news agencies shortly after polling stations start closing (some in France aren’t open as long as others). This leaves DOM-TOM voters — who haven’t yet gone to the polls — with a good idea of how the results are shaping up.

      For that reason, I don’t think it is a good idea, but as some Belgian and Swiss journalists explained on Eric Brunet’s show today, ‘People who oppose this move should get with the times. Information now moves faster and in more varied ways.’

      It is interesting that they say the same things we do about politicians. I’ve probably mentioned a few times before that they call the two main parties ‘UMPS’ (UMP-PS). I shall be very interested to see how Marine Le Pen does; she and Francois Bayrou make this point quite a bit.

Comments are closed.