François Hollande: The PS leader won the run-off presidential election in May 2012, and began his term with a strong popular mandate that was confirmed by the victory of the PS in the June parliamentary elections. In contrast to the populist tone of his campaign, Hollande’s governing style has been characterized by cautious pragmatism, an approach that has alienated his supporters on the left and disappointed centrist voters who are frustrated by his failure to tackle essential structural reforms. Hollande’s approval rating had plummeted to less than 20%, the lowest for any president in the post-World War II period. The EU’s partial retreat from its hard-line insistence on austerity provided the president with some temporary fiscal breathing space, but the economy has not responded as hoped. Following a series of painful defeats at subnational and European elections beginning in March 2014, the president has concluded that only an economic recovery can spare his party a crushing defeat in 2017, and has adopted a more aggressive approach to reform. However, the result is likely to be the further alienation of leftist elements within his party and an economic recovery that is too weak to convince centrist voters to give the Socialists another term.
Nicolas Sarkozy: Hollande’s predecessor has made a political comeback following his defeat in the 2012 presidential election. Despite his close ties to a party financing scandal, Sarkozy won re-election as leader of the center-right UMP in November 2014, positioning him to make another run for the presidency in 2017. Sarkozy has sought to distance the UMP from its recent scandals by, among other things, changing the bloc’s name to The Republicans (LR). Beyond the obvious benefit of discarding a damaged brand, the name change is also in keeping with a broader strategy of positioning the center-right alliance as the defender of a democratic tradition that the LR contends has been undermined by the PS administration’s controversial anti-terror measures, and is further threatened by the ascendance of the FN. In the likely event that Sarkozy is elected to a second term as president in 2017, an LR administration can be expected to pursue a mostly business-friendly policy agenda. The bigger question is whether a center-right government can secure enough support in the Parliament to quickly and efficiently implement that agenda.
The Republicans: A center-right party formed through the merger of several smaller parties in 2002, the LR (previously known as the Union for a Popular Movement) draws on a broad range of political traditions, but its policy approach in large part has reflected the Gaullist and liberal perspectives of its constituent founding parties. The party generally favors market-based economic policies, but occasionally moves in the direction of economic nationalism, a manifestation of the Gaullist emphasis on French independence. The LR is in a strong position to reclaim the presidency in 2017, but factional strife, a damaging financing scandal, and competition from the far-right FN pose impediments to the party’s ability to secure an outright majority of seats in the National Assembly.
Socialist Party: The PS scored a twin victory at elections held in 2012, as Hollande won the presidency and the party won 280 seats in the 577-member National Assembly. Although more accommodating of union demands and protective of the social safety net than its center-right rival, the PS is generally inclined to do what is necessary to meet the obligations arising from France’s membership in the EU and the euro zone. In any case, the potential for a significant deviation from the established policy course to trigger market volatility has encouraged Hollande to adopt a centrist approach on economic matters, to the detriment of the internal unity of his party.
National Front: The FN put in a strong performance at local elections held in March 2014 and scored a stunning victory at European elections conducted in late May of last year. Although the FN finished second on the basis of vote share at elections for seats in departmental councils held in March 2015, the party failed to win control of a single council, a reflection of the tendency of supporters of the LR and the PS to vote for each other’s candidates to ensure the FN’s defeat in run-off elections. That same phenomenon figures to affect the outcome of the 2017 presidential election, which is shaping up as a two-way battle between Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen, the leader of the FN. Le Pen has made an effort to move the FN closer to the political mainstream since succeeding her father as party leader, most notably in the case of the party’s adoption of a less hard-line stance on immigration. However, the party’s positions on matters related to European integration—Le Pen has proposed France’s withdrawal from the euro zone, favors the restoration of barriers to the free movement of labor within the EU, and advocates the imposition of protectionist trade barriers—represent an obvious impediment to the establishment of a formal political alliance with the LR.