Two months ago, Paris’s political insiders were unanimous: the presidential race was still open, but Ségolène Royal was clearly the favorite. Today, the reverse seems true. While the race is not over, Nicolas Sarkozy has emerged as the consistent favorite in the polls, as well as of those who declared “him” nearly defeated in early December. The new consensus can be described as follows: Ségolène Royal cannot defeat Nicolas Sarkozy, but Sarkozy can defeat himself.
Why has the Socialist candidate, the first woman who had a serious chance to be elected President of France, fallen from grace so quickly? And why has Sarkozy proved to be so resilient, despite the often negative passions aroused by his personality?
If Ségolène Royal is defeated, it will not be because she is a woman, but in spite of it. The French are ready for a woman, but perhaps not this one. She is beautiful, energetic, resolute, and in many ways surprising. Indeed, on issues such as law and order, respect for authority, and nationalism, one finds her positions far from what one would expect of a Socialist candidate.
But Royal has so far failed to rally her camp behind her. Her campaign’s combination of authoritarianism and confusion, if not sheer incompetence, is sapping her supporters’ morale while confirming the deep reservations of her opponents. Whatever their political preferences, many French voters have the feeling that an “amateur” is facing a “professional.” Whereas Sarkozy has managed to impose himself on the right without the support of Jacques Chirac, the Socialist heavyweights cannot fully convince themselves to come out behind Royal. Her defeat would be theirs, too, but their resentment over losing the nomination to her is so far proving stronger than their political survival instincts.