François Hollande inched a little closer to becoming the new French president by beating, if only by a whisker, the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, in the first round of presidential elections over the weekend. Extreme-right candidate Marine Le Pen came third. With the final run-off vote scheduled for May 6, President Sarkozy’s future seems to be on a knife’s edge.
When Sarkozy was elected five years ago he promised a break with the past, a new style of leadership. In his victory speech he promised to break what he termed the old, outmoded habits of France, saying that the French people had chosen change because in the opinion of Sarkozy France needed change.
Now, five years on, we can see that the French people have not really appreciated the change that Mr. Sarkozy has brought. Indeed, going into this presidential election, not a single poll suggested that Sarkozy would win, with numerous voters having told pollsters that Sarkozy’s personality and style turned them off. Unless Sarkozy can perform some last minute magic, it looks very probable that he may find himself following the 10 other eurozone leaders who have been voted out of office since the euro crisis began in 2009.
Over the last five years Sarkozy’s record has been quite hit-and-miss. He has rebuilt ties with both the US and Israel, took a key role in bringing about a cease-fire in the 2008 Georgia-Russia war, led France into a leadership role in a NATO-backed operation in Libya, and has been tough on Iran. Moreover, he helped draft a European fiscal treaty meant to stem the EU’s debt crisis. But while he has shown himself to be a very energetic man, and has thrown himself into many different initiatives, in terms of concrete deliverables to the French people, there has been very little. With unemployment in France running at its highest level for decades, foreign policy glory is not that important to ordinary people. For me personally, the thing that I remember the most about Sarkozy’s presidency is all the excitement that surrounded the creation of his now infamous Union of the Mediterranean which, after a Hollywood style launch, quickly crashed and burned. However, Sarkozy enjoys a battle and should not be underestimated. He will certainly not go down without a fight. Furthermore, because it is such a close race, the National Front of Le Pen, which took a whopping 17.9 percent of the vote, could now be crucial in the second round, becoming something of a kingmaker. Not surprisingly, Sarkozy, who has said the word “surrender” does not exist in his vocabulary, immediately began to lobby to far-right voters. He has promised to get tougher on immigration and security and keep industrial jobs in France. On the other hand, Monsieur Hollande has said he has no intention of courting the far right, although he would listen to their concerns. However, because Sarkozy used the same tactic during his 2007 second round campaign, it is less likely that he will manage to reap the same level of support twice. Moreover, because he is being forced to reach out to the far right, this could mean him losing some votes from the center. Whoever wins is taking on a tough job. The first task will be to impose greater austerity measures, including raising taxes and cutting public spending.
Meanwhile, Ankara is watching developments in France very closely. If Monsieur Hollande wins, it could create a new window of opportunity to breathe fresh life back into Turkey’s stalled EU membership negotiations, possibly leading to the lifting of France’s veto on the opening of new chapters in Turkey’s talks. So far only 13 of the 35 chapters have been opened, with no new chapters opened since 2010. Therefore, the prospect of having a more pragmatic French president has resulted in Ankara beginning to work on a number of currently blocked chapters, such as monetary policy. This new optimism stems from a belief that while Hollande has said there would be no Turkish accession during the next five-year presidential term, he has been far less skeptical about Turkey’s eventual accession than Sarkozy.
However, one also has to consider that while Sarkozy strengthened France’s anti-Turkish position, he certainly did not create it. The French population has never supported Turkish membership in the EU and probably never will. Unfortunately, there is a widespread belief in France that Turkey’s entry into the EU would bring with it far more problems than benefits -- something that Sarkozy has manipulated, although at the end of the day this policy seems to have won him very little. Therefore, even with the possible election of Monsieur Hollande, I am not sure there is going to be a massive change in France’s policy. If Sarkozy returns to office, this could really represent the end of the road for Turkey’s membership talks.
The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in Turkey's Today's Zaman on April 24, 2012.