PARIS – And the next French President will be…the Socialist Party’s candidate François Hollande. A month ago, any prediction uttered with such certainty would have sounded imprudent, if not foolish. Uncertainty prevailed. Four candidates dominated the competition, and no one would have dared to predict which two will make it to the second-round run-off. Indeed, the race looked more open than ever in recent memory.
Suddenly, something happened – not an event in itself (though it started with Hollande’s first great public rally in mid-January), but rather something that may resemble an irresistible process that can be summarized as follows: a majority of the French want to punish a president who has fallen from their graces.
They might not have dared to do so had they not found a reasonably credible alternative. Hollande, by appearing more sound and determined than most French voters thought he was, has given a voice (and a face) to a widespread desire to reject the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy.
That is not to say that Hollande is charismatic. On the contrary, there remain lingering doubts about his gravitas, not to mention serious concerns about the realism or the wisdom of his program. But, unlike his former companion, Ségolène Royal, who challenged Sarkozy for the presidency in 2007, he looks and sounds “real.”
From now on, the campaign appears set to be transformed into a classic left-right struggle, but with a major difference between the two main candidates’ strategies. Hollande wants to turn the presidential election into a referendum on Sarkozy, who, given his unpopularity, is seeking to frame the battle in terms of values and experience.
Indeed, the essence of Sarkozy’s campaign message has become: “You might not like me personally (you would be wrong, by the way, because I am not as you see me, and my experience in power has transformed me deeply), but you support my conservative values, because they represent what you really think. In a world that is changing so rapidly and brutally, you need stability and reassurance. I can give you that.”
By emphasizing the ideological divide between him and Hollande, Sarkozy is also being led to court, more openly than ever, the extreme-right electorate of Marine Le Pen’s National Front, as if he sensed that she might not find enough signatures to qualify for a place on the ballot. This strategy may make sense in the first round, but, by attracting extreme-right voters in the first round, Sarkozy could lose the support of centrist voters in the run-off. They might be willing to vote for “experience,” but not for a “Christian conservative” who strays from humanistic values.
In any case, one could argue that the French are being unfair toward their president. Sarkozy has had to confront exceptionally difficult circumstances, and his record is far from poor. At the beginning of his term, France was at the helm of the European Union, and he proved to be a skillful leader. Understanding the gravity of the economic crisis that erupted in 2008, he reacted swiftly and with considerable energy. He has also launched a major and long-overdue reform of the pension system and higher education. He made the right choices in intervening in Côte d’Ivoire and Libya.
One could easily add more such examples. In brief, Sarkozy has sincerely tried to reform a deeply paralyzed country. And he cannot be held responsible for high unemployment, given the depth of the world crisis.
Yet, barring a last-minute miracle – a major mistake by Hollande that wrecks his credibility, or a fresh bout of crisis that stokes voters’ desire for reassuring continuity at the top – Sarkozy appears condemned to be the second one-term president in the history of the Fifth Republic, following Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.
In 1981, Giscard was defeated largely as a result of the “betrayal” of his former prime minister, Jacques Chirac, who ran against him. In 2012, no one in Sarkozy’s camp is betraying the president (those who are trying, such as former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, have received no support). It is Sarkozy himself who has betrayed the hopes of his supporters and consolidated the hostility of his opponents.
Sarkozy did so mostly at the very beginning of his presidency, and he is likely to be punished for it in 2012. He has changed for the better, but only up to a point, and clearly not enough for a majority of the French, who, according to recent public-opinion polls, simply cannot stand the idea of having him on their television screens for another five years.
Of course, as former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson used to say, “a week is a long time in politics,” and Sarkozy will officially become a candidate only this week. Yet it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for him to prevent the upcoming election from becoming an emotional and negative referendum on his persona.