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France’s Presidential Reality Show

The Socialists’ anointment of Ségolène Royal’s as their presidential candidate is an important step on the road to the Fifth Republic’s eighth presidential election, which is set for April 22, 2007, with a second-round runoff two weeks later. All candidates should be known by the end of January – the deadline for printing the ballots. So, by that point, France’s four main political parties, two on the left and two on the right, must prepare their party manifestoes and choose candidates.

That, at least, is how the system is supposed to work in theory. In practice, while the official campaign is supposed to last only two months (long enough in a democracy, in which candidates have to endure an unrelenting media barrage), the jockeying of potential candidates, together with the media’s appetite for a horse race, helped kick off the real campaign nearly a year and a half ago. So today’s public debates have a somewhat surreal character, because the programs on which the candidates will stake their campaigns are still not developed. In their absence, personality and style, not political programs, have proven decisive. I am not sure this is good for democracy, but that’s the way it is.

Two such stylish personalities have so far commandeered the public opinion polls, and appear destined to meet in the second round. On the right is Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister (and briefly the economy minister), whose political rise took place within the grab-bag framework of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). The UMP is the political heir of Gaullism, but its ideological inconsistency is legendary – and reflected in party name changes every eight to ten years.

Sarkozy is philosophically a conservative, but an ultra-liberal on economic issues, making him totally foreign to the Gaullist tradition. Preaching privatization and social repression, he has placed himself to the right of the right, hoping to take back the votes that the mainstream right has been losing to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s “fascistoid” National Front for the past 20 years.