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France’s Election by Default

PARIS – Rousseau versus Hobbes: on the cover of the French magazine Philosophie, the two leading contenders in France’s upcoming presidential election, the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and the Socialist candidate François Hollande, are dressed up accordingly. “The real presidential contest” according to the magazine, pits the consensual and contractual vision of Rousseau (Hollande) against the violent “every man is a wolf to his fellow man” vision of Hobbes (Sarkozy).

Philospophie’s take on the French presidential election may contain some truth, but reality is far more prosaic – and far less intellectual. To understand the complexities of the race and Sarkozy’s recent (but still relative) surge, sports might be a better reference point than philosophy.

Consider Hollande’s strategy in soccer terms. Having scored early (establishing a lead in public-opinion polls), he has found himself in the position of an Italian coach practicing the “catenaccio” tactics of 20 years ago – a purely defensive strategy to keep Sarkozy from coming back. It might work, but it has also contributed to the tedium of Hollande’s campaign and the growing lack of enthusiasm for his person.

Hollande wanted so much to stress his “normality” compared to the excesses of Sarkozy’s character that he ended up appearing banal. As a result, he has found himself hemmed in by the crypto-revolutionary aura of the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, and Sarkozy’s hyper-energetic dynamism.

Mohammed Merah’s killing spree in Toulouse in March has also worked in favor of Sarkozy, who has been happy to shift the electoral debate from social injustice to security issues.

But, even if Sarkozy looks stronger now than he did at the beginning of the election campaign, the challenges he faces remain formidable, and may be impossible to overcome.

Never in the history of the Fifth Republic has the same partisan majority won a presidential contest more than three times in succession. Sarkozy’s re-election, following his victory in 2007 and Jacques Chirac’s triumphs in 1995 and 2002, would mean a fourth consecutive victory for the Gaullist right, which would be all the more remarkable in view of the economic situation in France, Europe, and the world.

Beyond these structural and historical factors, there is the issue of personalities. In this regard, the contest is not so much between Hobbes and Rousseau as between Bonaparte and Clement Attlee, the famously dull post-war British prime minister (of whom Churchill once said “he has much to be modest about”). In other words, the election may simply become a contest between rejection of Sarkozy and lack of passion for Hollande. As a result, abstention – usually remarkably low in French presidential elections – may play a major role.

In the meantime, regret can be sensed across the political spectrum. “If only we could have a more presentable candidate than Sarkozy,” mumble conservatives. “If only we could have a more charismatic candidate than Hollande,” comes the refrain from the Socialist camp.

Ultimately, this campaign will prove remarkable for the lack of serious attention paid to the candidates’ programs. The French perceive no real difference between an incumbent who has not kept his promises and a challenger whose promises are untenable. A suicidal denial of reality seems to unite the candidates and their supporters, best formulated as follows: “Don’t address serious issues, such as the national debt, during the election campaign, and we will not expect you to confront them seriously when you are in power.”

Consider the recent cover of The Economist, which depicts Sarkozy and Hollande as the two male characters in Manet’s famous painting “Déjeuner sur l’Herbe” (Lunch on the Grass). Surrounded by naked women, they are supposed to illustrate the “French art of life” that France can no longer afford.

Where is Churchill and his call to arms, effort, and sacrifice? Is France preparing to waste another five years, regardless of the election’s outcome?

Of course, in strong winds and high seas, the experience of the ship’s captain matters. Yet, given the problems of the French economy and the constraints of the European Union, not to mention those of the world economy in a global age, no president will have much room for maneuver.