For weeks the French presidential campaign looked rather dull, predictable and parochial. It still is parochial. However, the outcome no longer seems so predictable: Less than three weeks away from the first round of the election, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is ahead in the polls and the Socialist candidate Francois Hollande has had to face unexpected threats.
At the beginning it looked simple enough. A clear winner of his party’s primaries, Hollande just had to surf the massive wave of resentment against Sarkozy rising from across the spectrum of French public opinion.
Sarkozy has not been able to reap much benefit from his five years at the Elysee Palace, which have resulted in a weak economy, rising unemployment and an erratic fiscal policy. His period in office has also revealed an inclination to play around with civil liberties.
Now he is threatened on three fronts. First, Sarkozy has engaged in an energetic, aggressive, opportunistic campaign, tilting toward the extreme right, pointing the finger at elites, taxing expats and other fat cats, promising new measures by the day aimed at different constituencies.
And the president played his part with dignity after the terrorist attacks in Toulouse and Montauban, taking advantage of the fear of Islamist extremism and the revival of security concerns which had served him well in 2007. He is now ahead in the polls for the first round, weakening Front National leader Marine Le Pen to the point that she will not make it to the second.
Is it too late for Sarkozy to catch up with the Socialist contender, still firmly ahead in second-round polls? He will now try to cater to the center. He may have more flexibility to do so than Hollande, who faces harsh and unpredicted competition on his left flank.
This comes from the real surprise of the campaign, Jean-Luc Melenchon, a former Socialist, ex-Trotskyist, allied with the leftovers of the Communist Party, and now credited with 15 percent support. Melenchon has bloomed in the breach as Hollande, in contrast to Francois Mitterrand in 1981, positioned himself as a pragmatic, reasonable social democrat, unwilling to redistribute wealth before it is created. He hastily reacted to the challenge posed by promising a 75 percent tax on high incomes, but it was not enough to satisfy the “ultra-left.” Even if they were eventually to vote for him in the second round, how can Hollande seduce them and at the same time convince centrist voters to go his way?
Hence the third obstacle on Hollande’s path to the Elysee: a high level of abstention — experts predict 32 percent, twice the 2007 level. Are people disenchanted, aware that there is little room to maneuver in such times of crisis, tired of a campaign detached from their real concerns? Between a candidate you do not like and another who does not quite convince you, there is a great temptation to flee the ballot box, especially on the first Sunday of a school holiday.
Hollande needs to make up lost ground — the reason for an announcement of the first measures he would take once in the Elysee, starting with a symbolic reduction of his own salary. It was a way to pre-empt Sarkozy’s setpiece on Wednesday: the publication of his manifesto in the form of a “letter to the French,” and a press conference. The final presidential duel has indeed begun.