A French Presidential Primer

The late British Prime Minister Harold Wilson used to quip that “a week is a long time in politics.” So, in the 30 or so weeks between now and the next French presidential election, any prediction made today could be reversed, and reversed again, before the vote. But two candidates have emerged as clear and constant favorites in opinion polls: Nicolas Sarkozy on the right and Ségolène Royal on the left. In fact, they have more in common than meets the eye, for each speaks of a rupture with the past while incarnating a form of continuity.

For Sarkozy, “rupture” reflects both mundanely tactical and deeply personal choices. The 12 years of Jacques Chirac‘s presidency, together with France’s tradition of alternation in power, suggests a victory for the left. Positioning himself as the candidate who represents a sharp break with today’s unpopular politics is the only means to escape that fate.

This is reflected in Sarkozy’s openly pro-American stance – an act of political courage in a France where anti-Americanism is running high. Sarkozy’s message is that Chirac and Villepin were right in substance to oppose America’s military adventure in Iraq, but that their style was disastrously wrong. Thus, his deep admiration for “American values,” while sincere, implies no embrace of President George W. Bush. It also reassures the French business community, which was shocked by Dominique de Villepin’s flamboyant opposition to the United States when he was Chirac’s foreign minister.

At home, Sarkozy has aimed his message particularly at the young, issuing a patriotic call to the values of work and discipline, a counter-revolutionary revolution. The revolution that must be overcome is that of May 1968, whose leaders and supporters, according to Sarkozy, may have lost politically to de Gaulle, but deeply weakened France over the succeeding decades with their emphasis on “false values.” By contrast, rebelling against one’s parents’ generation and rediscovering traditional moral stances will save France – a message that is highly applicable to issues, such as education and immigration, that may dominate the electoral campaign.