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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.