A Question of Numbers

How much of a win is enough?  François Hollande is tempted to say, anything over 50% is a win.  He is of course mathematically right, but politics is never that simple.  Given that the official figures confirm this morning that Hollande won with 51.62% of the vote compared to Nicolas Sarkozy’s 48.38% of the vote, discussions abound over the margin of the victory.  What does this mean for Hollande’s presidency and the so-called “third round” – the forthcoming legislative elections – which he must win in order to be able to govern at all.

The foreign media reported last night and early this morning that Hollande “snuck in” (Fox) and that the victory was “narrow” (CNN and the BBC).  Was it really?  Hollande’s percentage is eerily close to that of François Mitterrand, the last Socialist President, and his win in 1981 (51.76%).  That translated then into a margin of over a 1 million votes compared to his run-off rival, Valéry Giscard-d’Estaing (who was also a sitting one term President).  Indications are therefore that a million more people voted for Hollande than Sarkozy.  This is hardly recount territory.

Within France, anything over 51% is considered to be a “clear” victory, but under 52% is not a “comfortable” one.  So what effect will it have on Hollande’s choices in the next few days?  His first task will be to pick a Prime Minister and then begin putting together a cabinet.  Most talking heads agree that the choice of PM is between Jean-Marc Ayrault, the rather dry safe-pair-of-hands who has led the Socialists in the National Assembly and is the long-time Mayor of Nantes, or Martine Aubry, seen as a strong figure from the left of the party for having been the figurehead of legislation to reduce the working week to 35 hours and long-time mayor of Lille.  The numbers are perhaps not critical enough to affect the choice Hollande will no doubt make today or tomorrow (but likely keep to himself until he takes power next week).  The social context of the country probably requires a PM with direct experience of dealing with the social partners and one that can reassure the left of the party.  That means Aubry.  Symbolism in appointing a women won’t hurt either.  Ayrault will get a plum job to balance the cabient, as will other key figures of the right of the party such as Manuel Valls and Pierre Moscovici.

The numbers will however affect how the campaign for the legislative election in June will be fought.  Whilst the result from the election last night indicates that Hollande has not convinced an overwhelming majority of the French that he has the right medicine for France’s ills, he should resist the temptation to drift to the left and instead tack even further to the centre.  Sarkozy’s UMP party suggested last night and this morning through its General Secretary, Jean-François Copé, that the basic strategy of his campaign (leaning to the right – perhaps even far-right – by focusing on the evils of both immigration and voting rights for foreign citizens) had been correct and will be pursued in the campaign for the legislatives.  That will leave the centre ground open for Hollande while the UMP battle with Marine Le Pen and the Front National, who have sworn to destroy the UMP and take their place as the main opposition to the Socialists.

This will both anger and frustrate the far left, particularly Jean-Luc Melenchon and his Front de Gauche.  Melenchon last night described some of Hollande’s centrist comments as “getting off on the wrong foot” and said he was uneasy with the direction the new administration seemed to be taking.  He should get used to that feeling.  The future success of Hollande’s administration depends on the centre ground, and with it, big numbers.  Success won’t come with 50.1%.

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