Nicolas Sarkozy: Let them eat cake

Chances that the current French president will be re-elected are slim to none.

Francois Hollande
Polls show Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande far ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy [GALLO/GETTY]

Amherst, MA – In less than three months, Nicolas Sarkozy will probably become the second president in the 50-year history of the French Fifth Republic to be defeated for re-election. (The first time was in 1981, when incumbent president Valery Giscard d’Estaing lost to Francois Mitterrand.)

Sarkozy’s standing in the polls is at a historic low for a Fifth Republic president. His main rival, Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande, enjoys a commanding lead: 58 per cent compared to Sarkozy’s 42 per cent, according to a Le Monde poll in early March. An imbalance of this magnitude between major candidates this close to the election is unprecedented in the history of the Fifth Republic.

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Why will Sarkozy probably lose? For starters, many French find his style downright distasteful. Although he enjoyed a high approval rating when he was elected, Sarkozy’s abrasive demeanour soon challenged what the French expected in a president. The problem began on election night in May 2007, when he ostentatiously celebrated his victory by dining at Fouquet’s, among France’s poshest restaurants, and he quickly compounded the public relations gaffe by taking a post-election Mediterranean cruise on the lavish yacht of a billionaire friend, Vincent Bollore. 

Sarkozy’s extravagant tastes soon earned him the nickname President Bling-Bling. Moreover, his bluster, temper tantrums and vulgar remarks have often been caught on camera, as was his very public romantic fling in Egypt with pop music star and former top model Carla Bruni – just when he was divorcing his second wife. (He and Bruni later married.) While the French grant their politicians considerable privacy, they expect that private conduct will remain behind closed doors.

Sarkozy’s performance of his public duties made matters worse. He has alienated many by being omnipresent, erratic and impetuous. He has gone on television to announce an initiative (at times without consulting even the government), only to abandon it soon thereafter. He intervened in ways that appeared partisan and inappropriate for a president – as, for example, when he tried (and failed) to engineer his son’s appointment to direct a para-public agency. Sarkozy’s presidency has also been marked by several cases of financial corruption in which he and his advisers have been implicated.

Less than stellar performance

If Sarkozy had compiled an impressive record of policy successes in his first term, his irascible and authoritarian style might have mattered less. However, his political performance has been far from stellar, especially measured against the inflated expectations he created when he ran for the presidency. During the 2007 election campaign, he proposed sponsoring reforms enabling the French to work more in order to earn more income. The result: France’s unemployment rate of nearly 10 per cent is the highest of all large industrialised economies, while economic growth is miniscule and wages and salaries have stagnated.

Sarkozy’s standing has been further damaged by his class-biased economic policies. For example, he lowered income taxes on the affluent while cutting social benefits and increasing the retirement age for most French. An additional blow to France’s economy and dignity – and Sarkozy’s electoral prospects – occurred last February when Moody’s, the bond-rating agency, recently downgraded France’s triple-A credit rating.

Sarkozy has tried to divert attention from the French economy’s poor performance by populist rhetoric and proposals that are a barely veiled attempt to court far-right support. (The candidate who currently ranks third in the polls is Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant National Front party.) Soon after Sarkozy’s election, he created a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity, and convened meetings through France charged with defining the meaning of French national identity. Both initiatives were interpreted as anti-Muslim. (The campaign to define national identity proved so inflammatory that the government called it to a speedy halt.) Sarkozy’s proposals in the current campaign include eliminating judicial safeguards that limit the government’s ability to deport undocumented immigrants; enacting procedures to further restrict the possibility of immigration for relatives of documented immigrants already established in France; and tightening procedures for granting political asylum. His opposition to granting legally established immigrants the right to vote in local elections is probably motivated by an appeal to anti-Muslim prejudice.

In contrast with Sarkozy’s poor record on domestic policy, he has been praised for his performance in the field of foreign policy. During his presidency of the European Union in 2008, he negotiated a ceasefire and peace agreement in the conflict between Russia and Georgia. He was the first and most audacious political leader to advocate armed intervention against Colonel Gaddafi’s Libyan regime, and has played a leading role in mobilising support for an international bailout for Greece and for proposing measures to preserve the eurozone. Yet these successes have not provided much of a boost to his political standing.

Hollande’s chance

Given weaknesses in Sarkozy’s personality, presidential conduct and policies, his major opponent, Francois Hollande, should be able to win by default. However, although a fixture on the political scene for decades, Hollande is not a magnetic figure; he was the Socialist party’s second choice for presidential candidate after the party’s frontrunner, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), was arrested last May on charges of allegedly sexually assaulting a New York hotel housekeeper.

Hollande has never held high elected office, and his most prominent position was first secretary of the Socialist Party, a post he held from 1997-2008. In order to defeat Sarkozy, who – however vulnerable – is a formidable speaker and campaigner, Hollande has had to demonstrate that he is a credible presidential candidate.

He took a giant step towards doing so when he launched his presidential campaign at a party rally in the Paris suburb of Le Bourget in late January. In a speech that combined simplicity, passion and eloquence, Hollande highlighted his humble origins, socialist commitments and disdain for money (an obvious poke at Sarkozy, who was recently quoted as musing that if he were defeated he would focus on making money). Hollande sought to allay widespread concerns about the authenticity of his leftist commitments by proclaiming, in vintage socialist fashion: “Let me identify my real adversary. That adversary doesn’t have a name, a face, or a party. My adversary will never be a candidate and will never be elected to office. And yet, my adversary will govern. My adversary is the world of finance.”

After Hollande’s triumph at Le Bourget, the election became his to lose. Polls currently show that the French judge him far better qualified than Sarkozy to direct the economy (by 54-34 per cent), reduce unemployment (57-30 per cent), reduce the debt and deficit (50-38 per cent), and unite the French (66-22 per cent). These responses suggest that most French have lost confidence in Sarkozy and that a majority are ready to give Hollande a chance.

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An important reason for Sarkozy’s vulnerability is the erosion of support for him by right-wing voters who are not part of the core base of Sarkozy’s centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP). For the past three decades, the Socialist Party and UMP have monopolised the presidency of the Fifth Republic. The two tend to divide about half the votes at the first ballot of presidential elections; candidates from smaller parties account for the remaining half.

The 2012 election promises to be no different. The two frontrunners – the Socialist Party’s Hollande and the UMP’s Sarkozy – presently account for about 55 per cent of the first-ballot vote. This year, three other parties on both sides of the left-right divide receive significant support: the far-right Front National (FN), whose presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, is presently at 16-18.5 per cent in the polls; the center-right Modem (Democratic Movement), whose candidate, Francois Bayrou, is at 11-13 per cent; and the far-left Left Front (Front de Gauche), a coalition including the Communist Party, whose candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, is at 8 per cent. Several other candidates share the remaining support.

Wheeling and dealing

The multiplicity of parties and candidates provides fertile soil for wheeling and dealing when combined with the two-ballot election procedure used for presidential elections. In order to run for president, a candidate must be nominated by 500 elected officials. Since there are about 32,000 such officials in France (mostly mayors), this requirement is not overly demanding, and 10-12 candidates typically compete in presidential elections.

However, even a candidate with significant popular support may fail to obtain the requisite number of signatures to be on the ballot. This is currently the case for far-rightist Marine Le Pen, who ranks third in the polls, but who has yet to obtain 500 signatures. Commentators have speculated that Sarkozy’s camp has been dissuading local officials from providing sufficient signatures in the hope that, if she does not run, her supporters will migrate to Sarkozy. While there is no credible evidence of manoeuvring by the Sarkozy camp, what is clear is that Sarkozy is energetically courting Le Pen’s electorate.

To be elected president on the first ballot, a candidate must receive an absolute majority. If no candidate clears this threshold – and none ever has, given the plethora of first round candidates – a runoff election is held between the two frontrunners. With one noteworthy exception, since 1981, the second-round competition has always pitted a Socialist against a UMP candidate. (The exception occurred in 2002, when Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin ran such a lacklustre campaign that he was outpolled by FN leader Jean Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father.)

Given that polls show support for all right-wing candidates on the first ballot currently to be 60 per cent, with only 40 per cent of voters supporting left-wing candidates, Sarkozy should in principle have excellent prospects of winning the runoff. However, the right is so bitterly divided, with anti-Sarkozy sentiment so widespread among right-wing voters outside the UMP’s core constituency, that the reverse is the case. Whereas the great majority of supporters of leftist candidates report that they will vote for Hollande in a Hollande-Sarkozy runoff, only 39 per cent of FN supporters and 28 per cent of Bayrou’s supporters say they plan to vote for Sarkozy. In fact, nearly twice as many Bayrou supporters prefer Hollande to Sarkozy in a second-round matchup (45-28 per cent)!

The takeaway: watch for Hollande to take possession of the Elysee Palace quite soon. If he can also persuade voters to elect a leftist majority to the National Assembly in June elections, a new phase of French history will begin.

Less clear is what will be the policy impact if Hollande is elected. A key question is whether, despite the leftist rhetoric he has employed in the campaign, he will embrace a milder version of Sarkozy’s economic austerity policies, or whether he will – as many economists urge – propose audacious measures to revive the ailing French economy. (See prominent economist Thomas Piketty’s criticism of Hollande on this issue.) Stay tuned!

Mark Kesselman is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Columbia University and Editor of the International Political Science Review. He has published books and articles on West European and American politics and political economy.