French Scorn Presidential Hopefuls as Jockeying for 2017 Starts

  • Main candidates for presidency all have less than 40% support
  • Jobless rise under Sarkozy and Hollande unlikely to reverse

It’s pre-election season in France and the three most likely presidential candidates have one thing in common: voters can’t stand them. 

President Francois Hollande trails his two main opponents in the most recent poll by Ifop for Paris Match, garnering a favorable opinion from only 31 percent of respondents. The leaders of the two main opposition parties -- the Republicans’ Nicolas Sarkozy, a former president, and the National Front’s Marine Le Pen -- have approval ratings of 39 percent and 35 percent respectively.

Sarkozy, Hollande and Le Pen

Source: DSK/AFP/Getty Images

In France, crises come and go but the political elites stay the same. The three top candidates for 2017 are the same as in the last presidential election in 2012, giving the nation an unwanted deja vu at a time when unemployment is almost double what it is in the U.K. and Germany. Hollande and Sarkozy may be unpopular, but no one else in their parties has managed to capture the public’s imagination either.

“In the U.S. or UK, when you lose you are out,” said Sylvain Brouard, a political science researcher at the Institute of Political Studies. “There is little political renewal in France, and it’s a problem that never changes. Here, the key to success is longevity.”

There are few signs the economy will rebound enough to dispel Hollande’s unpopularity or memories of Sarkozy’s term from 2007 to 2012. Under Sarkozy, the unemployment rate rose to 9.7 percent from 8.1 percent. Under Hollande, it’s now 10.4 percent. The overall economy did no better: Economic growth averaged 0.3 percent in the five calendar years after Sarkozy took office and 0.5 percent so far for Hollande, including the current year.

“There’s a strong defiance against the current administration, but not just against the administration,” said Yves-Marie Cann, head of political opinion studies at polling company Elabe. “Politicians of all types have a tarnished image in France. There’s no politician who manages to assemble both their base and the center.”  

Hollande, 61, has been in politics since 1980, when he graduated from the elite ENA school for civil servants in a class that also included current Energy Minister Segolene Royal, his former partner and Sarkozy’s opponent in 2007. After working as an adviser to President Francois Mitterrand, Hollande was elected to parliament in 1988 and became head of the Socialist Party in 1997. 

Higher Taxes

During the 2012 election campaign he alienated much of the business class by saying his “enemy” was finance and by promising a 75 percent tax on high earners. Two years into his presidency, he swung to policies to boost hiring, such as loosening labor laws and cutting payroll taxes, angering parts of his base without endearing him to centrists.

Sarkozy, 60, didn’t go to ENA but has been in the public eye since 1983, when at the age of 28 he was elected mayor of the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. Over the following years he served as budget minister, interior minister and government spokesman, as well as running France’s main center-right party.

After losing to Hollande in May 2012, Sarkozy, at the time the least popular president ever, said he’d retire from politics. But when his UMP party messily failed to elect a successor, Sarkozy returned to politics in September 2014, taking over the party and changing its name to The Republicans. His popularity with the general public hasn’t risen.

Marine Le Pen has never held a government position, but her father, Jean-Marie, founded the National Front in 1972 and ran five times for president. The younger Le Pen has cornered much of the protest vote and based on current polls could win the most votes in the first round of the presidential elections. Whoever gets into a run-off against her is expected to be France’s next president. The vast majority of French tell pollsters they would never vote for Marine Le Pen and her anti-European Union, anti-immigrant message.

“What we can say at this point is that she is likely to make it to the second round, where she’d get a substantial score,” said Jean-Philippe Dubrulle, a senior pollster at Ifop. “But to see her as the winner, that’s extremely unlikely.”

The possibility remains, especially on the right, that a challenger will replace one or another of the Big Three. Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppe says he’ll run in the Republicans’ primary and his approval rate of 64 percent in the Ifop Paris Match poll makes him the most popular politician in the country at the moment. But Juppe is 70 and was an unpopular prime minister in the mid-1990s. 

No Challenge

Manuel Valls, the 53-year-old business-friendly prime minister, is sometimes presented as the future of the Socialist Party. But he’s indicated he won’t challenge Hollande -- even though his approval rating is more than 20 points higher.

"Voters really want to see a new generation arrive, one that won’t be just made up of political professionals who have never done anything but chase elections and climb the party ranks," said Nathalie Schuck, deputy editor for Le Parisien newspaper, who also writes books and appears on television. "It’s not just that they want it, it’s that they think it’s normal. For 2017, voters will have a choice between the plague and cholera."