The Socialists' anointment of Segolene Royal 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, 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 manifesto 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 10 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.
Sarkozy imposed himself on the Gaullist movement against the will of President Jacques Chirac. Indeed, he snatched the presidency of the UMP despite Chirac's active opposition. Much of the public likes his raw language and harsh criticism of the rest of the right, notably of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, but above all of Chirac. He knows nothing about international affairs, but no one seems to hold it against him.
On the left, Royal, the Socialist president of the region of Poitou-Charentes, has scant government experience, serving brief stints as environment minister, family minister and education minister.
The anger of the Socialist Party's barons at Royal's rise was amusing to observe. She has yet to deal with the major problems of the day -- financial instability, Europe's sluggish growth, the Middle East -- and she cannot avoid them during her campaign. But, full of elegance and charm, and treating social problems with good sense and energy, she has topped public opinion polls for over a year.
So Sarkozy and Royal are universally expected to be the two leading candidates heading into the "High Noon" encounter of the second round. But, judging from the past, this is not how French politics works.
Ever since former French president Charles de Gaulle, all candidates for the French presidency who started too early have lost. Poher, Chaban-Delmas, Barre, Balladur and I were picked out by the media and treated as candidates for more than two years before the election, whether declared or not, and we were all eventually beaten. My own feeling is that the bombardment by the media is of such violence that the credibility of a candidate cannot endure for more than a few weeks. Overexposure hurts.