French presidential election, 1981

Infobox Election
election_name = French presidential election, 1981
country = France
type = presidential
ongoing = no
previous_election = French presidential election, 1974
previous_year = 1974
next_election = French presidential election, 1988
next_year = 1988
election_date = 26 April and 10 May 1981

candidate1 = François Mitterrand
party1 = Socialist Party (France)
popular_vote1 = 15,708,262
percentage1 = 51.76%

candidate2 = Valéry Giscard d'Estaing
party2 = Union for French Democracy
popular_vote2 = 14,642,306
percentage2 = 48.24%


map_size = 250px
map_caption = Results of the second round: the candidate with the plurality of votes in each administrative division. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing: blue; François Mitterrand: pink

title = President
before_election = Valéry Giscard d'Estaing
before_party = Union for French Democracy
after_election = François Mitterrand
after_party = Socialist Party (France)

The French presidential election of 1981 was won by François Mitterrand, the first Socialist president of the Fifth Republic. In the first round of voting, 10 candidates stood for election, from both the Left and Right of French politics. The leading two candidates 'went through' to the second round. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, these were Mitterrand and Giscard.

In the second round of voting, the Left under Mitterrand received a little over 52% of the vote, and the Right, under Giscard, trailed in a little over 4% behind. Mitterrand was president for the full seven year term 1981 - 1988 and stood, successfully, for re-election in 1988.

The Socialist Party's electoral program was called 110 Propositions for France.


First round

econd round

Giscard d'Estaing's government

The most important set of circumstances that gave François Mitterrand the advantage over President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing was Giscard’s incumbency itself. Usually, being an incumbent is an advantage. This was not the case, however, during the 1981 French elections. The incumbent seemed to have been cursed with many political misfortunes during his Presidential term; these crippling situations included internal matters that he could have controlled (and chose to ignore), and external forces that were beyond the incumbent’s control.


Internal political shortcomings seem to have done Giscard as much harm -- if not more -- as the external factors that were attributed to his electoral loss. Giscard, a pragmatic leader, had a haughty and disparaging personality. This made him appear inaccessible not only to the French people themselves but also to other cabinet members whose support he needed to reinforce his political legitimacy.

Moreover, Giscard himself felt that others involved in the political machine were inept and ill-suited to correctly implement his important policy decisions; he therefore took over the most minute details in his policy-making, leaving his Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, his ministers, and several layers of civil servants without duties, dissatisfied and ultimately without any power. Frustrated, Chirac resigned in 1976, built his own party and proceeded to lambast Giscard's policies, starting with the December 1978 Call of Cochin. The scene was set for the 1981 election when Chirac, having lost the "primary", failed to fully support Giscard in the second round, clearing the path for Mitterrand to take power.


Besides Giscard’s almost obsessive control over policy implementation, another internal political shortcoming of the incumbent appeared to be his ineffective tactics for deciding policy strategy. To the public at least, Giscard’s policies seemed to be sporadic, hasty, and ill-timed. His reforms proved unpopular with both the Left and the Right. In addition, Giscard abandoned other platforms that he had campaigned on in 1975. These policies were often couched as conspicuous (if not overly ambitious) pledges that ended up never quite being undertaken.

(As an indication of Giscard's failing popularity, a poll taken in June 1980 showed that even some people on the Left (15% of Socialists and 13% of Communists) had liked and endorsed Giscard previously because of his reformist attitude. By April 1981, however, his support on the left had dropped dramatically (7% and 1% of Socialists and Communists respectively). And there was no offsetting rise in his support on the Right.

As the election wore on and Chirac joined the race, Giscard had to appeal to his Rightist constituency and drop most of these radical views. As a result, his popularity fell and he was thought of as an opportunist.

Finally, Giscard had promised to be open to the opposition in Parliament, but his behaviour in office did not match the expectations he had made for himself. Because of his personality and his control over policy implementation, the executive powers had become highly centralized; control was concentrated in the hands of Giscard and his cabinet composed of a few trusted friends—namely, Michel Poniatowski, a "faithful friend and advisor".

Electoral system

If Giscard’s internal political handicaps had effectively "crippled" him in the initial race, the external factors that decided the 1981 election were a deadly blow. Neatly summarized in an article by Hugh Dauncey: "It was Giscard's double misfortune that his presidency should be blighted both by unprecedented economic difficulties, and by a political system which was stubbornly unreceptive to the ouverture and centralist compromise that he required for his reforms to fully succeed". The electoral and party system (political system) in France had, indeed, undergone many critical changes during the previous years. In particular the introduction of the two-round, majority vote requirement played a large role in the election of 1981. The new electoral system divided the various Rightist and Leftist factions within themselves during the first round, but led to Right and Left polarization during the second round. This forced the Right and Left to strategize for both the first and second parts of the election.

Thus in the first round each candidate must present him or herself as the better candidate while being careful not to remove all credibility of his/her fellow Right or Left candidates, as their opponents may have to run again in the next round against the opposing Right or Left candidate. (Much as is the case with the primaries in the USA).

In the second round, however, total unity must be achieved. This leads to the movement of both groups toward the center, with coalitions between center groups and extremists within the Right and Left.

Division Tactics

The new electoral "rules of the game," was one of the most notable factors that decided the 1981 election. The division within the Right between the two main Rightist factions, Giscard’s Union pour la démocratie Française (UDF), and Chirac’s neo-Gaullist Rassemblement pour la République (RPR) proved to be the final blow to Giscard (Painton, par. 12). When Chirac lost the "primary," he, in effect, refused to endorse Giscard as the candidate of the Right to the party constituents.

There was also the tactical ingenuity on the part of the Left that brought about Mitterrand’s victory. As author Penniman points out, in a shrewd move, the Left gained "strength through disunity." The Right’s disunity between the UDF and RPR factions brought about the downfall of their major candidate. The split between the Left’s Socialist and Communist Parties, however, allowed the electorate to be more comfortable voting for the Socialists while gaining the Communist Party votes, which retains roughly 20% of the electorate votes.

Other factors

Several other external factors gave Mitterrand and the Left added advantage.

The economy was in poor shape: unemployment was high, inflation was rising, oil prices were rising.

In addition to this, earlier during Giscard’s presidency, there had been a student revolt and a general strike that paralyzed the government; these events also fared badly for Giscard’s public image.


*Bonfante, Jordan. "Holding Most of the Cards." TIME Europe 23 May 1988. 12 Nov. 2004 [] .
*Dauncey, Hugh. "The Giscard Presidency 1974-1981: Towards a New France." Contemporary France Online. 12 Nov. 2004 [] .
*Girardet, Edward. "France Plunges into Socialist Era." Christian Science Monitor. 22 May 1981. LexisNexis. Stetson University Library, DeLand, FL. 22 Nov. 2004 [] .
*MacCulloch, Nancy and Anita McCarthy, ed. France: History and Culture. Irwindale, CA: Barr Films, 1988. Watched 1 Nov. 2004.
*Mosby, Aline. "Presidential Hopefuls Wage 'Campaign à la Américaine.'" United Press International. 25 Apr. 1981. LexisNexis. Stetson University Library, DeLand, FL. 22 Nov. 2004 [] .
*Painton, Frederick. "France Chooses Change." TIME Europe 18 May 1981. 12 Nov. 2004 [] .
*Penniman, Howard, ed. France at the Polls, 1981 and 1986: Three National Elections. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1988.
*Safran, William. The French Polity. New York: Longman, 1998.

External links

* [] Radio-TV debate Valéry Giscard d'Estaing/François Mitterrand
* [] Announcement of the result of the second round on TV

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