What the French Election Tells Us About Our Own: Not Much

The New Yorker's John Cassidy sees "Good and Bad News for Obama" in Nicolas Sarkozy's defeat.

The New Yorker’s John Cassidy sees “Good and Bad News for Obama” in Nicolas Sarkozy’s defeat in yesterday’s vote.

For President Obama, the sight of Nicolas Sarkozy, a fellow member of the Presidential class of 2007-2008, being sent packing by French voters will bring mixed feelings. Coming three days after British voters repudiated David Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal coalition in local elections, and on the same day that the Greeks delivered big losses to both major parties in parliamentary elections, the French result was another setback for conservatives and proponents of fiscal austerity. But it also confirms that these are perilous days for incumbents seeking reëlection. Sarkozy is the first French President to be turfed out of the Élysée Palace after one term since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, in 1981.

Over a dozen incumbent governments have been sent home in Europe since the recession got underway. In a way, that already happened here in 2008, when the Republicans were soundly defeated. But that really doesn’t tell us anything new: Mitt Romney has been running against the Obama economy the whole campaign and voter dissatisfaction with unemployment and uncertainty are already factored into the polls. Further, the liberal-conservative divide in Europe, certainly in France, tells us next to nothing about out own politics; Barack Obama may be labeled “socialist” by his Republican opponents but he’s unelectably conservative by Western European standards.

As I pointed out on Friday, European defenders of austerity economics are on the defensive. Here in the United Kingdom, where I’ve been staying for the past few days, Thursday’s elections, which saw the Labour Party make sweeping gains in local councils, were widely interpreted as a referendum on the budget-deficit fixation of Cameron and his finance minister, George Osborne. Now, the French have given their verdict on the hair-shirt polices that have tipped both continental Europe and the U.K. into double-dip recessions.

“Austerity no longer needs to be our fate,” François Hollande, the victorious Socialist Party candidate, told a cheering crowd in his hometown of Tulle on Sunday night, and he pledged to bring this message to France’s partners, “first and foremost to Germany.” We’ll have to wait to see whether the new French President will be able to deliver on his promise to provide a “new start for Europe,” but the days when Berlin could automatically count on Paris to back its hard line appear to be over.

When the campaign turns to questions of economics, what is happening in Europe should provide Obama with plenty of arguments with which to flay his opponents. Republicans say they want to slash government spending and focus on the deficit regardless of the immediate economic situation. The Europeans have carried out that experiment, and, to say the least, it hasn’t turned out very well. From this side of the Atlantic, the American economic recovery seems pretty impressive. After more than three years of economic stagnation, most Europeans would gladly take G.D.P. growth of two-to-three per cent and an unemployment rate of eight per cent.

But that’s on a completely different structural basis. Romney will rightly point out that the European economy is crippled by a vast welfare state, which gives governments much less room to maneuver.

Further, it should be noted that Sarkozy came close to pulling off a win despite it all: it was a 52-48 race. Sarkozy would likely have won if National Front leader Marine Le Pen had thrown her support his way; instead, she declined to endorse either candidate and let it be known that she thought Sarkozy’s staying in office would be a disaster. Not to mention that Sarkozy is a flaming jerk who makes Chris Christie look lovable by comparison.

The dynamics of the races are almost completely different. The Eurozone crisis is front and center in France; it should be here, but it’s an afterthought in the minds of the voters. Sarkozy was in office when the global financial collapse hit; Obama was merely running for office–and the opposition party was there when the crisis started. Obama can claim several foreign policy successes, whereas Sarkozy’s leadership in the Eurozone situation hasn’t paid off–and was saddled with the Afghanistan mess. And Obama is well liked whereas, as noted, Sarkozy irritates even his supporters.

The similarity between the two is that both would have easily won re-election in a good economy. As it is, Obama remains heavily favored to win in November; it wouldn’t even be interesting if unemployment were at 6 percent. But the bad economy is already baked into the polls, so we don’t need yesterday’s results to tell us that it’s Obama’s chief vulnerability.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I would also urge people not to conflate European or British party political alignments with ours. It’s also useful to remember that while we have a winner-take-all system France, the UK, and Germany each have different forms of parliamentary systems.

    Bottom line: you really can’t learn much about American politics from British or European election results.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler: Indeed. Although France is an especially odd hybrid–one which Russia copied for their post-USSR system. The president is elected as an individual to a five-year term but in a double-ballot system. The parliament is elected separately–in a different set of elections altogether. And the prime minister is not necessarily a creature of parliament, certainly not in the way he is in the UK or Germany.

  3. al-Ameda says:

    There is no analogy to our current election at all.

    On our political spectrum, Sarkozy is the equivalent of a moderate Democrat perhaps Obama, Holland the equivalent of Bernie Sanders, and Le Pen is roughly equal to Sarah Palin.

  4. Dave Schuler says:


    I think you’re illustrating the point I was warning against. You can’t put French politicians on our political spectrum at all. Is what Marine Le Pen believes in more like what Sarah Palin believes in or what Barack Obama believes in? I think we should just say Autres pays, autres moeurs.

  5. al-Ameda says:

    @Dave Schuler: all I was trying to say, perhaps in-artfully, is that Sarkozy wasn’t defeated from the Right. In our upcoming election there is no Left to speak of – only Right and moderate Right.

  6. @Dave Schuler:

    It’s also useful to remember that while we have a winner-take-all system

    I suppose that depends on what you mean. However, of the systems listed the British is about as close to “winner take all” as you can get: usually the party that wins the plurality of the national vote wins control of parliament and then, by definition, the PMship and cabinet.

    The US is actually far from “winner take all” given bicameralism, separation of powers, and federalism.

    And while the French system is quite different than the US system it is actually more comparable (in terms of institutional functionality) to the US than it is to the UK or Germany.

    Ultimately, though, I utterly agree that making direct comparisons between the politics and party systems across these systems is foolish.

  7. Andre Kenji says:

    No, the French political system is very different from the American Electoral System. There is no direct election for the Senate, there is the run-off, so there are several parties that just exist to run in the first round of the Presidential Election. There would be no Le Pen if there were no runoff.

    In fact, there is no system similar to the American Political System because there is no other large country with large population that uses the FPS proportional system and presidential system at the same time.

    Another point is that the First Amendment creates restrictions to any kind of Campaign Restrictions, that exists anywhere else.

  8. Andre Kenji says:

    And I doubt that Sarkozy would win if Marine Le Pen had endorsed him. There are too much working class people that does not like Brussels or globalization amongt the Front Nationale voters. Hollande won most of the Departments in the south where Le Pen usually gets a large proportion of the vote.

  9. @Andre Kenji:

    And I doubt that Sarkozy would win if Marine Le Pen had endorsed him.

    I concur.

  10. Scott says:

    It is interesting that most of the major stock markets are down except for the CAC-40 which is up almost 2%. If money is international, then money is betting on the French. Don’t know if that will last. It may be just that French are happier today than yesterday.

  11. James Joyner says:

    @Andre Kenji: @Steven L. Taylor: That’s quite possibly true. Most of Hollande’s early lead evaporated, as most of us who had at least a decent understanding of the French system predicted it would. Given that only four percent separated the two on the second ballot, I figure it wouldn’t have taken much to swing it to Sarko.

  12. John Cole says:

    the European economy is crippled by a vast welfare state

    Is this actually the case? Maybe in Greece, where they can’t even pull their act together to pay and collect taxes, but much of Europe has what an American conservative would consider a vast welfare State, and their economies are just fine. See Germany, for example.

  13. Ron Beasley says:

    What the people of Europe now realize is that the Eurozone was a really bad idea that is not working.
    One lesson we can learn here is the US is the Europeans also realize that the austerity program is not working and never will. As the economy continues to collapse so do tax revenues making it even less likely that none of the debt will be paid off.
    @John Cole: Exactly, the Greeks may have had an overzealous welfare state but there real problem was the inability to collect taxes. Now the economy is so bad there are fewer taxes to collect. The Greek bailout(s) was really a bailout for banks that made bad loans.

  14. James Joyner says:

    @John Cole: @Ron Beasley: A German-style welfare system works well, so long as you have a German-style commitment to work and fiscal prudence. Even there, though, they’re going to hit a demographic cliff because there aren’t enough kids coming up to pay for generous pensioner benefits.

  15. Dave Schuler says:

    so long as you have a German-style commitment to work and fiscal prudence

    I disagree that Greece’s problem is a lack of commitment to work. You might want to check the statistics—the average hours worked per person-year is higher in Greece than it is in Germany. I believe that Greece has a number of problems, many deriving from their years of domination by the Ottoman and by the succession of bad governments that followed independence. It’s a low trust system that’s drastically under-capitalized.

    As far as fiscal prudence goes, for every borrower there is a lender. Are the Greeks’ problem their own fiscal imprudence or the imprudence of German, French, and Luxembourger banks?

    I’ll repeat here what I’ve written before. Greece could leave the euro, Germany could leave the euro, or the Germans could accept supporting the Greeks in much the way that New York supports Mississippi or Wyoming.

  16. Ron Beasley says:

    @Dave Schuler: Well said!

  17. PD Shaw says:

    @John Cole:” much of Europe has what an American conservative would consider a vast welfare State, and their economies are just fine.”

    ? ? ? ? ? ?

    In all, 12 European economies are now officially in recession.

    Germany, the largest euro economy and the fourth largest worldwide, could be next: Its economy shrank 0.2% in the last three months of 2011, and it is expected to show another contraction when it releases data for the first quarter in mid-May.

  18. Ron Beasley says:

    @PD Shaw: How much of this is the result of the austerity program?

  19. Dave Schuler says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    I don’t think your question is answerable as stated, Ron. To answer it we’d need a reasonably rigorous definition of “austerity”, for one thing. We’d need to identify over what period we were talking and what countries.

    Germany appears to be in recession or going into recession. The Germans talk a lot about austerity and are perceived as being austere but the actuality may be somewhat different.

    I think that the Eurozone has several distinct problems to which an expanding welfare state driven, as here, mostly by rising healthcare costs is only a contributing factor rather than a primary one. Some of the factors are:

    – what is “European”?
    – what is a “European lifestyle”?
    – slow growth
    – demographic factors–slow or negative growth in native-born populations
    – too rigid a labor market (particularly in Italy)

    Is there a straight-line connection between fiscal austerity (defined as spending no more than your revenues) and going into recession? I don’t think so. Switzerland is one of the countries not in recession and it’s running a slight surplus.

  20. Ben Wolf says:

    @James Joyner

    But that’s on a completely different structural basis. Romney will rightly point out that the European economy is crippled by a vast welfare state, which gives governments much less room to maneuver.

    There is no evidence that the welfare state is “crippling” the economies of europe.

  21. Tillman says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Is there a straight-line connection between fiscal austerity (defined as spending no more than your revenues) and going into recession? I don’t think so.

    It’d be more accurate here to ask whether fiscal austerity is connected with or causes weak post-recession recoveries and double-dip recessions.

  22. Dave Schuler says:


    That wasn’t the question that was asked. The question that was asked was whether “austerity” was causing European countries to go into recession.

  23. Ben Wolf says:

    @Tillman: Austerity is accelerating a process that was well underway for the eurozone countries due to a flawed monetary sytem. Britain has no such excuse: austerity is entirely the culprit.

  24. Ron Beasley says:

    @Ben Wolf: Austerity is not a bad thing but there are times to do and times not to do it. Following the worst recession since the depression was not a time to do it. In Europe they went all austerity and they are experiencing negative growth. In the US Obama managed to get some half ass stimulus and we have some half ass growth. Can anyone find a single example where austerity resulted in economic growth after a recession?

    Here in the US collapsing infrastructure and under funded education systems will also make any kind of recovery increasingly impossible. Of course the Republicans talk austerity now but if they do get in power they will once again spend like drunken sailors.

  25. Tillman says:

    @Dave Schuler: Yes, and you said that question was unanswerable. I was reframing the question.

  26. Ben Wolf says:

    @Ron Beasley: The problem with the concept of austerity is “Where does the money come from?”.

    Britain for example wants to close a sizeable budget deficit, and it’s doing so by reducing the flow of pounds into the private sector (cutting spending) and increasing the number of pounds it debits (tax increases). None of its leaders appear to have considered where the private sector is supposed to get pounds to replace the ones government is taking out of the economy, they seem to assume that money spontaneously comes into existence. In reality the British Pound is issued by the government and it does so by spending them into the economy. The only result austerity can ever have is to financally weaken the private sector and reduce economic activity.

  27. Sweden, South Korea, Brazil, Mexico and other countries enacted what most people would call “austerity measures” after financial crisis and that helped these countries to grow after some years. The idea that you don´t increase taxes and you don´t cut spending during recessions has no footing on reality.