Among European politicians, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is well known outside France. The candidates challenging him in this year’s election, however, are less familiar to global investors.
As Sarkozy struggles to establish a firm lead in the polls, and with France’s euro zone commitments potentially at stake with the election, it has become more important than ever for investors to know his two key rivals.
MARINE LE PEN, Front National
A 43-year-old single mother of three, Marine Le Pen joined the presidential race on March 14, 2012 when she announced she had accumulated the 500 signatures from elected officials required to run in the election.
Le Pen, a trained lawyer, succeeded her father Jean-Marie Le Pen as leader of the far right National Front in January 2011.
She was determined to move the party her father founded in 1972 further toward the mainstream and away from what was widely perceived as xenophobic rhetoric.
As the youngest of three daughters, Marine Le Pen learned early on in life what it meant to be closely associated with the National Front leader, arguably France’s most hated man. Her family home was targeted in a bomb attack in 1976, when she was eight years old.
Her parents divorced when she was a teenager, and she did not speak to her mother for 15 years following the separation in 1984. When she was 18, Marine Le Pen joined her father’s party.
A fierce nationalist and critic of capitalism, Le Pen has been able to use the euro zone debt crisis to her advantage and has called for France to leave the euro.
She combines a traditional right-wing anti-immigration stance with left-wing politics, calling for the nationalization of health care, banks and other services which she says should be protected from the private sector’s desire for profits.
Her father surprised France in 2002 by coming second in the first round of the presidential elections. Few people expect Marine Le Pen to win France’s 2012 elections, but she poses a considerable threat to draw votes away from Sarkozy.
FRANCOIS HOLLANDE, Parti Socialiste
Born as the son of a doctor in Rouen, north-western France, Hollande was active in student politics and joined France’s PS, or socialist party, in 1979.
The 57-year old career politician chaired the party for 11 years and was chosen to lead the socialists to victory in the 2012 presidential elections.
The race to become a presidential candidate saw him pitted against his ex-partner and mother of his four children, Segolene Royal.
His current partner, Valérie Trierweiler, is a political journalist and has made public appearances with him, prompting calls for her to choose between her role in politics and her career in the media.
Hollande has alarmed European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, by saying he would renegotiate Europe’s debt limit pact agreed to earlier in 2012 if he is elected. Under the pact, EU member states that don’t respect strict debt and deficit limits will face sanctions.
He has proposed a 75 percent income tax on those earning more than 1 million euros, lowering the retirement age to 60—Sarkozy raised it to 62—and wants to preserve France’s 35-hour work week.
He has also suggested reforming the banking system to ensure that speculation does not interfere with what he says is the primary role of banks—lending to companies and households.
Although his lead in the polls has narrowed, Hollande is expected to defeat Sarkozy in the second round of the presidential elections in May.