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1981 French presidential election

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

1981 French presidential election

← 1974 26 April 1981 (first round)
10 May 1981 (second round)
1988 →
François Mitterrand avril 1981.jpg
Valéry Giscard d’Estaing 1978(3).jpg
Candidate François Mitterrand Valéry Giscard d'Estaing
Party PS UDF
Popular vote 15,708,262 14,642,306
Percentage 51.8% 48.2%

Élection présidentielle française de 1981 T1 carte départements & régions.svg
Results of the first round by department

Élection présidentielle française de 1981 T2 carte départements & régions.svg
Results of the second round by department

President before election

Valéry Giscard d'Estaing

Elected President

François Mitterrand

The 1981 French presidential election took place on 10 May 1981. François Mitterrand defeated incumbent president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing to become the first Socialist president of the Fifth Republic.[1]

In the first round of voting on 26 April 1981, a political spectrum of ten candidates stood for election, and the leading two candidates – Mitterrand and Giscard d'Estaing – advanced to a second round. Mitterrand and his Socialist Party received 51.76% of the vote, while Giscard and his Union for French Democracy trailed with about 48.24%, a margin of 1,065,956 votes.

The Socialist Party's electoral program was called 110 Propositions for France. Mitterrand served as President of France for the full seven-year term (1981–1988) and won re-election in 1988.

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 right and left factions within themselves during the first round, but led to right and left polarization during the second round. That forced the right and the left to strategize for both the first and second parts of the election.

In the first round, candidates must present themselves 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. (It is much the same in US primary elections.)

In the second round, however, total unity must be achieved. That 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 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 refused to advise his supporters to back Giscard in the runoff though he stated that he would vote for Giscard. In effect, Chirac refused to endorse Giscard as the sole candidate of the centre-right.

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 it gained Communist votes, which were roughly 20% of the electorate.


Summary of the 26 April and 10 May 1981 French presidential election result
Candidates Parties 1st round 2nd round
Votes % Votes %
Valéry Giscard d'Estaing Union for French Democracy 8,222,432 28.32% 14,642,306 48.24%
François Mitterrand Socialist Party 7,505,960 25.85% 15,708,262 51.76%
Jacques Chirac Rally for the Republic 5,225,848 18.00%
Georges Marchais French Communist Party 4,456,922 15.35%
Brice Lalonde Political Ecology Movement 1,126,254 3.88%
Arlette Laguiller Workers' Struggle 668,057 2.30%
Michel Crépeau Movement of Radicals of the Left 642,847 2.21%
Michel Debré Rally for the Republic (splinter) 481,821 1.66%
Marie-France Garaud Rally for the Republic (splinter) 386,623 1.33%
Huguette Bouchardeau Unified Socialist Party 321,353 1.11%
Total 29,038,117 100% 30,350,568 100%
Valid votes 29,038,117 98.38% 30,350,568 97.12%
Spoilt and null votes 477,965 1.62% 898,984 2.88%
Turnout 29,516,082 81.09% 31,249,552 85.85%
Abstentions 6,882,777 18.91% 5,149,210 14.15%
Registered voters 36,398,859 36,398,762
Table of results ordered by number of votes received in first round. Official results by Constitutional Council of France.

Source: List of candidates[permanent dead link] · First round result[permanent dead link] · Second round result[permanent dead link]


  1. ^ Eder, Richard (11 May 1981). "Mitterrand Beats Giscard; Socialist Victory Reverses Trend of 23 Years in France". The New York Times. p. 1. Retrieved 5 November 2010.


  • Bell, David. François Mitterrand: A Political Biography (Polity, 2005).
  • Bonfante, Jordan. "Holding Most of the Cards." TIME Europe 23 May 1988. 12 Nov. 2004 [1].
  • Cauchy, Pascal, L'Election d'un notable, Les coulisses de Mai 1981. Paris, Vendemiaire ed.,March 2011.
  • Dauncey, Hugh. "The Giscard Presidency 1974–1981: Towards a New France." Contemporary France Online. 12 Nov. 2004 [2].
  • Girardet, Edward. "France Plunges into Socialist Era." Christian Science Monitor. 22 May 1981. LexisNexis. Stetson University Library, DeLand, FL. 22 Nov. 2004 [3].
  • 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 [4].
  • Painton, Frederick. "France Chooses Change." TIME Europe 18 May 1981. 12 Nov. 2004 [5].
  • 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

  • [6] Radio-TV debate Valéry Giscard d'Estaing/François Mitterrand
  • [7] Announcement of the result of the second round on TV
This page was last edited on 23 July 2022, at 13:00
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