Sun, Oct 01, 2006 - Page 9 News List

With the French presidential poll, image is the key

When voters go to the polls next spring, they will likely choose the candidate they dislike or fear less, and personalities will likely trump the programs they offer

By Dominique Moisi

The late British prime minister Harold Wilson used to quip: "A week is a long time in politics."

So, in the 30 or so weeks before 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 Segolene 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 former French president Jacques Chirac's administration, together with France's tradition of alternating power between parties, suggests the left should win the next election. Sarkozy's positioning of 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-US 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 the US military adventure in Iraq, but that their style was disastrously wrong. Thus, his deep admiration for "American values," while sincere, implies no embrace of US President George W. Bush. It also reassures the French business community, which was shocked by Dominique de Villepin's flamboyant opposition to the US 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 the May 1968 movement. The leaders and supporters of the movement, according to Sarkozy, may have lost politically to de Gaulle, but they also 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 like education and immigration that may dominate the electoral campaign.

In the case of Royal, the meaning of "rupture" is both more obvious and more visible. She is seeking to become the first female president of France. To achieve her goal, she prefers to emphasize her "essence," thereby countering Sarkozy's stress on his record as a "doer."

Her appeal to voters is simple: "I am a woman, and you have never tried a woman, so be modern and try one now."

Hiding behind the originality -- in French presidential politics -- of her gender, Royal has avoided specifying a detailed program. When challenged by inquisitive journalists demanding greater precision about her policy agenda, her highly effective line of defense has been: "You would not dare to ask me such a question if I were not a woman!"

Thus, Royal's program is her popularity. In foreign policy, one can only guess what her priorities would be. As far as Europe is concerned, she seems as "agnostic" as Sarkozy, who, like her, incarnates a new generation of "post-European" leaders.

In terms of values, Royal, too, seems to represent a rupture with the May 1968 movement with her emphasis on discipline and family.

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