By the time you read this, the first round of the French presidential election will have taken place. What has the three-month campaign told us about modern France?by Tim King / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
For the first time in the fifth republic, France is enjoying a presidential election campaign with neither an outgoing president nor a prime minister running. For a while at least, France will no longer be led by old men: it feels like a fresh beginning. Determined to distance themselves from their predecessors, the new generation of younger candidates tried to redefine the persona of a French head of state. They studiously avoided the much-ridiculed langue de bois—elegant but meaningless circumlocutions—as well as that over-pompous delivery beloved of French presidents, which accentuates the impression that they are from another planet. Sometimes, in their efforts to use excitingly modern expressions, they went too far too fast. Ségolène Royal was publicly mocked for inventing words like “bravitude,” or using horrible Anglo-Saxon expressions like “win-win,” gratingly translated as gagnant-gagnant—ultimate proof, claim her detractors, that she has been brainwashed by Blairism. Nicolas Sarkozy is notorious for his pioneering use of playground words like racaille (scum)—but he was also scolded by Le Figaro for bad grammar in his major campaign speeches. His fault? Emulating many of his younger voters (and probably like many Prospect readers), he veers away from a subjunctive whenever he sees one approaching.
But the candidates were also picked up for the form of their speeches; they had to speak the truth because of a new force in French elections—the internet. Video clips of meetings were posted on the web for all to see, revealing, for example, Ségolène Royal’s true authoritarian manner or her unflattering opinion of schoolteachers. Worse, every campaign promise was immediately dissected by thousands of political websites, often by people more knowledgeable than the candidate, as if the whole country had become one enormous buzzing café.
From the beginning the campaign was dominated by one candidate: Sarkozy. In most polls he never dropped below first place, with average support of 26 per cent, yet such is his unpopularity that twice that number promised to prevent him being elected, and no poll showed him winning the second round against François Bayrou. Throughout the campaign, though, Sarkozy’s nearest rival was not Bayrou but Royal. Her campaign was more volatile. A year ago, few could imagine her as the Socialist presidential candidate—but she used the internet to galvanise support and thrash the party favourites in the primaries. The internet, though, is a virtual world, and when Royal met the real one she came…