The first round on 22 April 2007 saw Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal emerge as the last two candidates in the running to replace Jacques Chirac as French president. The ballot was marked by "tactical voting", a strategy supported by the Socialist Party to avoid repeating the shock of 2002 which saw far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen qualify for the run-off due to voter dispersion in favour of small candidates on the left.
European issues have been largely absent from the campaign, which centred mainly around a classical left-right opposition on jobs, globalisation and immigration, as well as the personalities of Nicolas Sarkozy (seen as a 'worrying' figure) and Ségolène Royal (criticised as incompetent).
Despite voters' lack of interest in European issues, Sarkozy and Royal aired a number of views on EU integration which offer both contrasts and similarities:
European Central Bank criticism
This is one of the strong points of agreement between Royal and Sarkozy. Both have heavily criticised the ECB for its perceived narrow focus on inflation and lack of consideration for economic growth and job creation.
Both want to increase France’s influence on the ECB’s monetary and exchange rate policy, by strengthening the Eurogroup, the group of economy and finance ministers from the 12-member eurozone countries.
However, such a far-reaching reform will prove difficult to achieve since it would entail a revision of the Stability and Growth Pact introduced with the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. Treaty revisions can only be agreed by unanimity and some countries, including Germany, are eager to maintain a restrictive monetary policy to hold back inflation.
Economy, Europe and globalisation
Sarkozy is widely viewed by free-market supporters in Europe as capable of pushing through the reforms, including labour-market flexibility, capable of revitalising the French economy. Ségolène Royal, who supports raising the minimum monthly wage and has defended France's 35-hour working week, is seen as more protective.
But Sarkozy has had to temper his own campaign to appeal to a wider audience. In order to win voters on his left, he said he would not scrap the 35-hour working week but would instead introduce tax breaks for companies and workers putting in extra hours.
The two rivals do have many similarities, with both pushing for the introduction of a minimum Europe-wide company tax base to reduce competitive distortions within the EU. They also both promised to protect European industries against global competitors such as China and India.
In fact, the push for 'a more protective Europe' was a recurring theme in both candidates’ speeches (EURACTIV 23/02/07 and 12/02/07). Sarkozy vowed to defend French companies against foreign takeovers and called for the suspension of European aid to member states engaging in social, fiscal or environmental dumping. He also criticised the Commission for doing too little to protect European jobs (EURACTIV 10/11/06).
In the Presidential Pact she presented on 12 February 2007, Royal proposes to build "a more protective Europe" based on new "ambitious common policies" and to safeguard French-style public services in a new EU framework directive (EURACTIV 12/02/07).
Sarkozy is widely regarded in Brussels as the candidate with the most chance of coming to a quick agreement on a 'mini-treaty' to replace the stalled EU Constitution, rejected by French voters in 2005. He advocates a Parliamentary ratification to avoid repeating the 2005 referendum debacle (EURACTIV 8/09/06).
Royal has opted for a radically different approach, calling for the negotiation of a substantially new treaty including a social dimension which would be presented to French voters in a fresh referendum. A new convention would be set up under French presidency in the second half of 2008 following extensive consultations with member states under previous presidencies.
The project would run contrary to Germany’s plans to come up with a substantive road map for solving the Constitutional crisis at the June 2007 EU summit.
On this issue, it is Royal – more open to immigration and to Europe's enlargement towards Turkey – that appears closer to the Commission's official line. Sarkozy, on the other hand, objects to further EU enlargement, saying that it will dilute Europe's identity and turn the EU into an unworkable institution. He instead supports an EU-led "Mediterranean Union" that would include Turkey and other Muslim countries.
Debates in the first round covered a wide range of issues, most of which will come back on the agenda in the second round. Attention is now turning to François Bayrou who appears to hold the key to the election with 18.6% of votes in the first round. Far-right voters of Jean-Marie Le Pen will continue to attract some attention with 11% of votes on 22 April.
Nicolas Sarkozy wants to place "work value" at the heart of his project. He is proposing "a single employment contract", saying it will be "more flexible for companies so that they are encouraged to hire staff, and more securing for employees because it will be of unlimited duration for all".
Ségolène Royal shares the ambition "to rehabilitate work", in particular with the creation of a "first-chance contract", an initiative denounced in her own camp as the Left’s version of Dominique de Villepin’s 'First-Employment Contract' (CPE) withdrawn in 2006 after heavy street protests.
To combat unemployment, François Bayrou recommends an immediate measure: the chance for all firms to create two jobs without having to pay related taxes or social contribution.
Lastly, Jean-Marie Le Pen supports national preference: for equal competence, employment will be reserved for French citizens.
The debate over working time is primarily related to the issue of a maximum 35-hour working week. Nicolas Sarkozy proposes to facilitate access to overtime and to remove social contributions and taxes from overtime hours, for employers and employees alike. Ségolène Royal, whose party supports the 35-hour working week, calls Sarkozy’s proposals into question.
The UDF candidate has also commented on the subject and is seeking to increase overtime pay (between 35 and 39 hours) by 35% to reward work. In addition, he proposes to reduce social-security contributions proportionately, so that the companies do not incur any further costs.
For his part, Jean-Marie Le Pen recommends a renegotiation of working-time duration on a business-to-business basis.
Enterprise creation/Support for SMEs
In terms of creating companies and supporting SMEs, it is François Bayrou, with his proposal for a 'small business act', who has shown the most innovation. The act stipulates maintaining the SME share of public/large markets at 20%, and all markets lower in value than €50,000.
Nicolas Sarkozy proposes the creation of a system of venture-capital and zero-interest loans to help launch companies, while Ségolène Royal wishes to simplify the processes required to create a company and to improve contractors' social protection.
National debt and taxation
France's difficulties in fulfilling the Stability and Growth Pact criteria have led the candidates to propose several solutions to the problem of national debt.
Nicolas Sarkozy wants, in five years, to bring it back it to less than 60% of GDP, to limit the rise in public expenditure to 1.8% per annum and to lower the obligatory removal of 4% of GDP over ten years.
Ségolène Royal believes it will be possible to reabsorb the national debt with concerted growth. According to Royal: "The return of confidence and growth and a voluntary policy for employment will stimulate tax and social re-entry."
If elected, François Bayrou will prevent the state from borrowing for administrative expenditures and wants a productivity increase of 2% per annum for six to eight years.
Jean-Marie Le Pen is favorable to "a huge audit of social accounting" and wants to re-orientate public expenditure towards investment and state grants to associations by 30%.
Environment and nuclear power
The environment campaign was partly focused on the ecological Alliance for the Planet Pact, organised by television presenter and militant ecologist Nicolas Hulot. The objective was to encourage all the candidates to place ecological and climatic issues at the heart of their manifestos.
Among the four principal candidates, only Jean-Marie Le Pen did not sign the pact. For the rest, their positions diverge, particularly concerning renewable energies and nuclear power.
While Nicolas Sarkozy wishes to increase the renewable-energies share, without a precise objective, Ségolène Royal opined that it will have to reach 20% of consumption by 2020.
François Bayrou pleads for a four-fold reduction by 2050 of greenhouse-gas emissions, while on nuclear power, Ségolène Royal wants to restore the nuclear-electricity share to 50% by 2017.
Bayrou also supports maintaining the nuclear industry, but promises a national referenda on the subject before summer 2007.
Immigration and integration
Questions related to immigration and integration are at the forefront of the candidates' campaigns, with Sarkozy proposing the creation of an immigration and national identity ministry. The proposed mix of immigration control and the concept of national identity caused controversy among the candidates.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, who wants to remove social assistance for foreigners, dual nationality, the automatic acquisition of French nationality and family regrouping, was in favour of the proposal - Ségolène Royal and François Bayrou were strongly opposed.
At European level, Sarkozy wants to create a single EU consular network responsible for visa delivery and to establish an immigration pact between large European nations.
As for Bayrou, he has proposed a European immigration policy.
In addition, the candidates remain divided on the questions of the regularisation of the sans papieres, family regrouping and positive discrimination.