The story of the 2012 French presidential election is quite interesting. Right-wing incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy entered the election deeply unpopular. Opinion polls consistently showed him losing by around 20%.

France’s presidential system has two rounds. In the first round, everybody can be a candidate. The top two winners of the first round move to a second round run-off.

As election day approached, Sarkozy’s deficit continually shrunk.  Opinion polls just before the first round showed Sarkozy losing by low double-digits. As the campaign for the second round began, they showed him behind by high single-digits.

Sarkozy ended up losing by 3.2%. That’s a pretty steep drop-off from the polls that showed him behind by 20%.

To be fair, Sarkozy’s opponent François Hollande isn’t the best politician. But the fact that Hollande barely defeated one of the most unpopular presidents in the history of France’s Fifth Republic says something about France.

Indeed, the right has dominated the left throughout the history of French presidential elections:

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As this chart shows, the French right has won seven presidential elections; the French left has won just three. The right’s greatest election victory occurred in 1958, when French war hero Charles de Gaulle defeated hapless Communist candidate Georges Marrane with 79% of the vote.

The left’s greatest victory occurred in 1988, when incumbent François Mitterrand took 54% of the vote over Jacques Chirac. A French left-wing presidential candidate has yet to win by double-digits; the right has done this multiple times.

In addition, there are two instances when the French left failed to make it into the second round. This happened in 1969 and 2002, which are colored darker blue above (the margin in these years indicates the first round). In both instances the second round ended up being between two right-wing candidates. So far a French presidential election has never featured two left-wing candidates in the second round.

Here’s a table of the elections:

French Presidential Elections Results: Second Round
Year Left Right Margin of Victory for the Left
1958 13.0% 78.5% -65.5%
1965 44.8% 55.2% -10.4%
1969 0.0% 100.0% -100.0%
1974 49.2% 50.8% -1.6%
1981 51.8% 48.2% 3.6%
1988 54.0% 46.0% 8.0%
1995 47.4% 52.6% -5.2%
2002 0.0% 100.0% -100.0%
2007 46.9% 53.1% -6.2%
2012 51.6% 48.4% 3.2%

France has generally had a reputation of being a very liberal place, and this analysis might seem surprising from that perspective.

To be fair, the French right is very different from the American right. France’s right-wing is probably to the left of America’s Democratic Party (at least on economic issues). France’s left used to be the Communist Party; today it is the Socialist Party. Both parties would never win a presidential election in the United States.

Finally, and ironically, as I write these words the French socialists have just won an absolute majority in Parliament. France’s socialists today hold more of the levers of power than they have ever held in the history of the French Fifth Republic. But historically, it has been the right and not the left in power in France.