Can Sarkozy hang on against prince-of-blandness Francois Hollande?

By J Brooks Spector 25 January 2012

2012 is a year of many political leadership contests - Taiwan, Mexico, Russia, are just a few. Perhaps the most important and hardest to handicap may be the upcoming presidential race in France on 22 April. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

A year ago, the contest was supposed to be an unequal battle between the elegant, international master of the financial universe, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and that arrogant twerp of an incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy. Then came DSK’s global fall, France’s entanglement in the eurozone crisis and the country’s debt rating downgrade. Now the race, in words of New York Times columnist, Roger Cohen, has evolved into one between “leadership” and “change”.

“If the French decide leadership is more important in a time of crisis they will grit their teeth and re-elect Nicolas Sarkozy. If they want change from a president never close to their hearts, they will — as Samuel Johnson said of second marriages — embrace hope over experience and elect the Socialist candidate, François Hollande,” wrote Cohen. Sarkozy has not formally announced his candidacy, but it is accepted he wants another term.

On Nicolas Sarkozy’s watch as president as a centre-right leader, unemployment has hit the worst level in the past 12 years, his pension reforms pushing up the retirement age proved seriously unpopular, the euro is threatening to hit the wall and the left hasn’t had any joy at the presidential level since Francois Mitterand left 17 years ago. Given all this, and the apparent inability of Sarkozy’s wife, Carla Bruni and their new baby to lift his numbers out of the doldrums, this election may just be the left’s to lose.

Photo: Francois Hollande (Reuters)

As much as the French populace has soured on Sarkozy as a man who can make those hard decisions, or when he does they are unpopular ones, the line on his chief opponent, François Hollande, now seems to be that he is a ditherer who simply can’t make up his mind and deliver his vision. Hollande stepped up as the left’s candidate after the presumptive challenger, DSK, self-immolated and Hollande’s former partner – and mother of four children by Hollande – Marie-Segolene Royal, had faltered badly in the previous presidential election in France against Sarkozy in 2007.

There is another key candidate (actually there are several) Marine Le Pen, youngest daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the former head of the right-wing populist Front National, and one strongly opposed to foreign immigration. Because French presidential elections require an absolute majority, and because there have always been multiple candidacies, the election usually becomes a two-step process, and this year will be no exception. Le Pen and the other minor candidates will not emerge as either of the last two candidates standing, but can certainly muddy the waters before that.

Photo: Marine Le Pen (Reuters)

Norwegian-born Eva Joly, 67, a highly regarded former judge who came to France as an au pair in the 1960s and remains a dual national, is also on the ballot as the Green Party’s candidate. Joly decisively beat former TV host Nicolas Hulot in the Green Party’s balloting, taking more than 58% of the vote to Hulot’s 41%. She won’t win first or second place, but she will definitely make the campaign more interesting.

Hollande initially seemed to be in the “cat bird seat” (okay, okay it’s an American baseball expression, but it has a lovely feel to it as a descriptor of someone in the lead and in charge of the pace of the game), as the avatar of the change in whom the French could believe. But his inability to push the discussion much beyond generalities with his plans to take it to the rich domestically and his critique of “unbridled globalisation” may have blunted the edge of his challenge.

Photo: Norwegian-born Eva Joly. (Reuters)

Hollande is one of those French guardians of the state who went to all the right national elite schools and universities, and has the requisite Gallic charm and insouciance, but he has, so far, not been able to bring it home against Sarkozy. Instead he has fallen back on sniffing about Sarkozy’s lack of polish and his background as a social climber, using the phrase, “un sale mec” – essentially one really nasty piece of work. The implication is that Sarkozy is not worthy of high office, that he is an arriviste – one of “them”. (Watch Sarkozy have a go at a journalist over the downgrade of France’s credit rating to get a sense of what Hollande may have been reaching for – you don’t really need to know much French – just watch the eyes, the hands, the shoulders and the wiggle.) 

In this election, Sarkozy has done his share to cheapen the discussion – pandering to the right in an attempt to pinch votes from the Front National with his own comments about the Turks in dismissing their bid for EU membership, restrictive rules against immigrants and his administration’s posture on minorities like the Roma (gypsies). But he has also taken strong (albeit less than universally popular) domestic policy steps such as pension and tertiary education reform. Moreover, the Sarkozy government has reasserted a forceful international presence through  France’s involvement in the elimination of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, his embrace of the US and his increasingly strong partnership with Germany’s Angela Merkel to try to find a way out of the eurozone morass. The results may not be to everyone’s tastes or preferences – but at least they have been clear and forceful, giving the nation a renewed sense of decisiveness and international presence again.

In the past few days Sarkozy convened a meeting that brought unions and business leadership together in the same room to promote greater economic flexibility (and thereby growth) in the prevailing economic doldrums. Sarkozy said, “The gravity of the crisis obliges us to make decisions, regardless of the political calendar.” He added that the economic crisis and unemployment “don’t give any of us the right to stay immobilised”. He also announced increases in aid to those who cannot find work, training and new tax incentives for small businesses that hire people below the age of 26. Despite Sarkozy’s administration’s demurs that this has little to do with the election, measures to improve national economic competitiveness and reach out to the jobless will always be good politics.

And so, the coming French election has become something of a national referendum on the quality and nature of leadership and in this one, despite the sniffing about Sarkozy’s hauteur gap, he may well be poised to get another stay at the Champs Elysee Palace after all. And that may be good news for the embattled eurozone, France’s economic partnership with Germany and its strategic ties with Britain and the US. DM

For more, read:

  • The Sarkozy Effect in The New York Times;
  • Facing Elections, Sarkozy Focuses on the Jobless in the New York Times;
  • French presidential front-runner declares war on rich at the France24;
  • Francois Hollande stages first major rally in 2012 French presidential race in the Guardian;
  • Marine Le Pen and France’s Front National sense their time has come in the Guardian;
  • Norwegian-born Eva Joly to run for French presidency – at the France 24.

Main photo: Nicolas Sarkozy (Reuters)


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