French presidential election, 1981

French presidential election, 1981
26 April and 10 May 1981

Candidate François Mitterrand Valéry Giscard d'Estaing
Party PS UDF
Popular vote 15,708,262 14,642,306
Percentage 51.8% 48.2%

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

President before election

Valéry Giscard d'Estaing

Elected President

François Mitterrand

The French presidential election of 1981 took place on 10 May 1981, giving the presidency of France to François Mitterrand, 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 Valéry 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.

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 financial and 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 been at least as responsible as the external factors in causing Giscard's electoral loss. Though a pragmatic leader, Giscard 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 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 1974. 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 right and left 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 refused to advise his supporters to back Giscard in the runoff, though he himself stated 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 gaining the Communist Party votes, which retains roughly 20% of the electorate votes.


 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 UDF 8,222,432 28.32% 14,642,306 48.24%
François Mitterrand Socialist Party PS 7,505,960 25.85% 15,708,262 51.76%
Jacques Chirac Rally for the Republic RPR 5,225,848 18.00%
Georges Marchais French Communist Party PCF 4,456,922 15.35%
Brice Lalonde Political Ecology Movement MEP 1,126,254 3.88%
Arlette Laguiller Workers' Struggle LO 668,057 2.30%
Michel Crépeau Radical Party of the Left PRG 642,847 2.21%
Michel Debré Gaullist Miscellaneous Right DVD 481,821 1.66%
Marie-France Garaud Gaullist Miscellaneous Right DVD 386,623 1.33%
Huguette Bouchardeau Unified Socialist Party PSU 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 · First round result · Second round result


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


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