As French election goes into high gear, it's Mr. Hot vs. Mr. Cool

President Sarkozy is in full attack mode against Socialist frontrunner François Hollande, bringing a rarely seen element to French campaigning.

Francois Mori/AP
French President and conservative UMP party candidate for the upcoming election Nicolas Sarkozy (c.) poses for a photograph with residents as he campaigns in Drancy, near Paris, Tuesday.
Christophe Ena/AP
French Socialist Party candidate for the upcoming presidential elections François Hollande (third from l.) shakes hands with a bystander as he arrives for a campaign rally at the train station in Besancon, eastern France, Tuesday.

Just over a week before Round 1 of France's presidential elections, the race is tightening into a duel between Mr. Hot and Mr. Cool – Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande.

President Sarkozy is in full attack mode as Mr. Hot, doubling down, slashing, shooting in all directions, getting personal, scoffing at frontrunner Mr. Hollande, and warning that France faces a fearful future if he is not reelected.

Mr. Sarkozy’s recent “Letter to the French People” raises perils on nearly every page: of Islamic radicals, unchecked immigration, and a France slipping into an economic crisis like that of Greece or Spain. Sarkozy now wants two TV debates before the runoff on May 6 that decides the presidency.

It’s a hot attack style rarely seen in French politics. Sarkozy's numbers are not moving, and analysts say he needs momentum going into the second round.

"I'm going to win and I'll tell you why,” Sarkozy said recently. “He [Hollande] is no good and people are starting to see it. Hollande is useless." Today, Sarkozy said his adversary's policies would bring a “massive crisis of confidence” in the economy.

Mr. Cool, the Socialist Hollande, continues on with a 7-10 point lead in the second-round May 6 vote that, in yesterday's opinion polls, appears to be cementing, if anything. He is playing things low key, appearing affable, making no fearful tirades, smiling a lot, and refusing to step into a muddy ring with Sarkozy, even when the latter smeared his journalist girlfriend as a “caviar liberal.”

Mr. Cool’s strategy is to make no mistakes and to outlast Sarkozy by gathering, rather than hunting, the center votes of a weary France he feels is ready for change.

Hollande is benefiting from Sarkozy’s unpopularity and swimming with the tides of continued bad economic news, with high unemployment and no growth in the first quarter of 2012.  He contends that Sarkozy’s use of the terror and fear card will backfire, and that the French, after 11 years with Sarkozy as interior minister and then president, already see through it.

Hollande has in recent days taken pokes at Sarkozy, partly prodded by handlers who worry he needs to step up. At a rally yesterday, Hollande charged the current administration of “arrogance and conceit.” He said Sarkozy’s “excessive claims” were catching up to him, citing the president's assertion that he visited Fukushima after the tsunami, which did not happen.

"This is the first time in the history of the Republic that incumbent recounts a trip he has never taken," Hollande quipped in a comment reported in Le Nouvel Observateur.

Yet Hollande has been the only candidate to refuse an interview with Le Figaro, the center-right daily seen as pro-Sarkozy, saying he had the right to choose whom to speak with. Later, Hollande said he will talk to “all media” after Round 1.

France has 10 candidates vying for the April 22 elections, which narrow the campaign into a two-person race for May 6. Sarkozy and Hollande both are hovering at 28-29 points in current polling for Round 1. French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) polls show that the French see Sarkozy as more presidential than Hollande by a wide margin, but that Hollande is seen by a wide margin as more understanding of the French and sympathetic.

Biggest momentum is at opposite ends of the spectrum

The greatest movement or interest in the elections have been generated on the far-right and far-left wings of the political spectrum. Yet nationalist Marine Le Pen and former Trotskyite Jean Luc Mélenchon both hover around 15 percent and appear not to be in a position to enter the final round.

Recent days have witnessed a surge on the left, created by Mr. Mélenchon, who has held sensational rallies across the nation punctuated by red flags and the singing of the old communist “Internationale.”  What worries Hollande, his team says, is that the fiery Mélenchon could scare centrist voters away from the pragmatic and reasonable center-left that Hollande promises to govern from.

Analysts say Sarkozy’s strategy is to turn the race into a bruising duel after April 22. His longstanding idea is to use April 22 to create momentum, a “strong dynamic,” to surge into the lead May 6, says Eric Dupin, a political analyst for Rue 89 and author of “Travels in France.”

Sarkozy was photographed Monday in athletic gear riding a racing bicycle uphill, a visual contrast with Hollande, who, while losing 40 pounds in the past year, usually appears in dress suits.

The French president must overcome a visceral unpopularity among French. His message of late has been that the French may not like him, but are safer with him. Sarkozy appeared at first to have benefited from the shocking killing rampage of a self-styled French-born Islamist radical in Toulouse, an event that extended into roundups of suspected Muslim radicals and the blocking of Islamic clerics from coming to France.

That seemed to change the focus of the campaign from French economic woes to the threat of Islam, though in recent days the fear factor seems to have abated as a benefit. Yesterday Sarkozy told French TV interviewers that the Toulouse shooting remained for him the central moment of the French campaign so far.

“Sarkozy is the man of the show … and at the moment, he tries to use all the issues he can find… to appear to be the boss. That’s politics,” says Karim Amellal, an Algerian-born novelist and media company owner. “It is not surprising [Sarkozy] is going after Islam and right wing topics. He had a perfect tragic event to work with, and he has used it," he says. "But we don’t know the result yet.”

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