French presidential candidates avoiding ‘real issues’

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Foreign correspondents based in Paris have criticised the leading candidates in the French presidential elections for avoiding substantive economic issues in favour of headline-grabbing, but largely symbolic proposals, EURACTIV France reports.

Five journalists from the European and international press were invited to react to and debate a study, commissioned by EURACTIV France and consultancy Apco Worldwide, on foreign opinion-makers’ views on the French elections (summary of main results here).

For Paul Taylor, Reuters’ Paris bureau-chief, the “real issues” have been little discussed in the course of the campaign. For him, the reduction of public spending and austerity measures have been ignored by the candidates as “traps”.

Taylor went on to say that politicians are not preparing the French for necessary sacrifices and that there might be a “social explosion” after the election due to the failure to prepare public opinion.

Gabriele Parussini, a Wall Street Journal correspondent, said the candidates “are ignoring” the current economic situation. He argued that it is possible to campaign while proposing austerity measures “as long as you have a genuine project”.

He cited the campaigns of British Prime Minister David Cameron and, to a lesser extent, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy as examples of this.

These statements echo an article published in The Economist which considered French presidential candidates to be “in denial” of the economic crisis.

‘Campaign of spectacle’

It’s a “campaign of spectacle” filled with false debates, said Alberto Toscano, correspondent for the Italian public broadcaster RAI. He attacked some of the candidates’ proposals as symbolic attention-grabbers.

Toscano said François Hollande’s proposal to impose a 75% income tax on individuals earning over €1 million a year was “grotesque” and he termed Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposals on Schengen “propaganda”.

He said the state of debate in France was evidence of a “French paradox for nostalgia and a will to change”.

Swedish journalist Johan Tollgerdt (Svenska Dagbladet) said the candidates “are not talking about industry or innovation, France perhaps looks backward a bit too much”.

The country sees itself “as one of the losers of globalisation, which is not correct economically,” said Taylor. He argued that the French press is partly responsible for the emptiness of rhetoric and proposals in this area, because it has failed to force politicians to talk about substantive issues.

Hollande ‘walking in Sarkozy’s shadow’

Greek journalist Ira Feloukatzi (EpikairaElefterotypia) said the far-left candidate of the Front de Gauche (Left Front) Jean-Luc Mélenchon is the only one to have injected enthusiasm into the campaign, while representing “nostalgia for May '68”. 

But the journalists present though it was unlikely that Mélenchon would have any great influence on François Hollande were the Socialist to be elected. “We won’t hear of Jean-Luc Mélenchon after 7 May,” predicted RAI’s Toscano.

Feloukatzi argued that Mélenchon was currently a more useful than harmful candidate for the French left. “He expands the ranks of the left, bringing with him the votes of environmentalists, leftists and even abstainers,” he said.

He added that Mélenchon plays the role of “the great orator” while Hollande keeps his head down. For Reuters’ Taylor, the Socialist Party candidate “is living to avoid mistakes and is voluntarily walking in Nicolas Sarkozy’s shadow” because he is counting on the president’s unpopularity to win.

Those polled in the EURACTIV France study showed Hollande as most likely to win. Taylor said this was in line with trends in other European countries which throughout the economic crisis have tended to reject parties in power, regardless of their political affiliation.

The 2012 presidential election in France is being held in two rounds, on 22 April and 6 May.

François Hollande, the Socialist candidate, has until recently been leading in the opinion polls, for both rounds. But President Nicolas Sarkozy, the centre-right candidate, has since regained ground.

An Ifop poll published on 2 April was showed Sarkozy pulling into the lead for round one, scoring 29.5% to Hollande’s 27.5%, with Jean-Luc Mélenchon overtaking Marine Le Pen to stand in third place.

The poll found 81% of Mélenchon voters and 40% of centrist Francois Bayrou’s backers would switch to Hollande in round two, giving him 55% to Sarkozy’s 45%.

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