As France enters election season, Hannah Dowling gives a rundown of the challenges faced by President Nicolas Sarkozy in his re-election bid
In politics, a week is a lifetime; three months an eternity. President Nicolas Sarkozy has three months in which to turn his record disapproval ratings around if he is to have any chance of being re-elected. While some think that he has little to no chance, it would be premature to rule him out entirely. France’s presidential campaigns are known for being volatile and susceptible to immense changes, thus at this stage it is unwise to declare Sarkozy’s campaign as dead in the political water.
Sarkozy’s first major challenge is getting his support to the level of his main opponent, the Socialist Party’s François Hollande. Although Hollande is leading in the polls, he has considerable difficultly in inspiring the French public, and as such it is likely that his approval ratings stem from the ‘anyone but Sarkozy’ mentality. The staid and lackluster Hollande is the Socialist Party’s second choice, a late replacement for their original candidate, former IMF chief Dominique Strauss Kahn, before the events of May 14th 2011 lead to his downfall. While untested and not the most dynamic of personalities, Hollande is considered by many to be a good bet in ousting Sarkozy out of the Elysee. Another key player is Marine Le Pen of the far right National Front Party. A more presentable character than her father, the former party leader Jean Marie Le Pen, Le Pen is achieving for the party a prominence that cannot be dismissed by the French political establishment. The increasing popularity of the National Front is also damaging to Sarkozy as it undercuts the conservative voter base upon which he previously relied.
It has become increasingly obvious that the difficulties Sarkozy is facing are himself, his record, and his relationship with the French public. Any race in which a sitting politician is seeking re-election is seen as a referendum by the nation on that incumbent. Here lies Sarkozy’s greatest problem: gaining popularity with the French public is personal, not political. In the words of the French Interior Minister Claude Guéant, when it comes to the national mood, the President has an “affection deficit”. This is in contrast with his American counterpart, President Barack Obama, whose personal popularity bolsters his polling numbers despite the public not liking his policies. Sarkozy is suffering due to his immense unpopularity with the French electorate, who like neither his policies nor his personality. The French are impatient and frustrated with Sarkozy; they dislike his closeness with the super rich, his courting of the extreme right and his exhibitionist soap opera life. Adding to their grievances is the downgrading of France’s credit rating, which further cements the fact that France’s economy is coming into trouble, with rising unemployment and mounting debt. Indeed, Sarkozy is quoted as having said, “I am dead” if France loses its triple A rating. Marry this with the fact that Germany has retained its credit rating; it feeds into the unpopular idea of Germany being Europe’s undisputed leader with France as its junior partner, a notion that is humiliating for the French. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s endorsement of Sarkozy is unlikely to have been entirely welcomed by the French public.
Despite the overwhelmingly negative factors that have troubled his re-election chances, Sarkozy’s campaign isn’t as hopeless as it appears. It is vital to remember that despite his limitations as a leader, he is an incredible campaigner with a record of overcoming numerous setbacks and securing surprise victories. As a talented debater and campaigner, Sarkozy may prove that he has a chance after all. His party, the Union for A Popular Majority (UMP) has been working aggressively to dent Hollande’s credibility as a candidate. Combine this with a ruthless campaigning style characterised by confrontation, blatant calculation, and a dogged determination and we see a candidate with what it takes to pull it off. In the meantime, the re-election campaign is working hard to distance the candidate from the public’s image of him. Indeed it is believed that Sarkozy announced his campaign early so as to create as much time as possible for his team to distance the President from his record and history. Already Sarkozy is trying to create and project the image of a more statesman-like President, giving off an aloof air while keeping his personal life firmly in the background. First-time candidates must seduce the electorate; incumbents must work to prove that they are the only serious option, and this is what Sarkozy hopes to convey.
Three months is a long time in politics, particularly in an unfailingly volatile race such as a French presidential campaign. Anything is possible in this time period. A skilled and canny campaigner such as Sarkozy, who thrives in adversity, may yet find himself overcoming what currently seem like very poor chances.