French presidential elections will be referendum on Sarkozy, the man

The first round of French presidential elections are Sunday. Incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy is facing the lowest approval ratings of a modern president, largely due to distaste with his style, not platform.

Eric Feferberg/AP
French President and UMP party candidate for the elections Nicolas Sarkozy acknowledges applause as he arrives for a campaign meeting in Nice, southern France, Friday, April 20.
Charles Platiau/Reuters
Francois Hollande, Socialist Party candidate for the French presidential election, holds a bouquet of roses as he attends a campaign rally in Charleville-Mezieres on Friday, April 20.

In France, to a degree unique in Europe, presidents wield enormous power. The position is only half-jokingly likened to an elected monarch, a kind of British queen and prime minister combined. 

This Sunday, April 22, French voters will decide among 10 candidates for that top job in the first round of an election that will finally be finalized on May 6 in a two-person runoff.

Every poll indicates incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy is likely to face the Socialist Party frontrunner Francois Hollande on May 6. But Mr. Sarkozy, who has regularly made international news since getting elected in 2007, faces a serious likability problem at home, where his approval rating is, at 36 percent, the lowest of any modern French president.

So far the French elections have been criticized in and out of France as trivial and an exercise in petty and divisive attacks among candidates, and the candidates themselves have been slammed for manipulation of voter sentiments at a time when the French unemployment rate is at 10 percent. Polls show that turnout in round one is projected to be low.

But the French election outcome is increasingly seen as critical in a tightly interwoven Europe that continues to have serious economic woes. Mr. Hollande, a moderate in the social democratic mold, has vowed to rethink the Berlin-led fiscal austerity that Europe has signed onto as its way out of a debt crisis.

Such an outcome could signal, analysts say, a middle way in Europe, led by France, between the debt, lack of growth, and social despair in Greece and Spain and and the prescription of ever deeper cuts favored by Germany, Europe’s powerhouse.

“A Hollande victory could be a blow to the proponents of absolute austerity in Europe,” says Karim Emile Bitar, a senior fellow at IRIS. “Hollande is not against austerity, but he wants a minimum equilibrium between growth and fiscal austerity, and does not want an arbitrary German criteria in deciding how and when to reach zero percent.”

Sarkozy is too 'divisive'

Round one elections are important, political analysts say, since momentum is the most important factor in the second round. For months polls have had Sarkozy and Hollande in a microscopic see-saw, both at around 28 percent, flanked by the far right and far left candidates, Marine Le Pen and Jean Luc Melenchon, at about 15 percent.

But in recent days Sarkozy has shown signs of losing his political mojo, even after large rallies in central Paris in which he unusually humbled himself, calling for the French to “help me to protect you.”

Seven out of eight polling firms have Hollande with at least a 10 point lead over Sarkozy on May 6. Even former president Jacques Chirac, a member of Sarkozy’s party who was his mentor at one point, has made it clear he is voting for Hollande – citing Sarkozy as a divisive force in France.

"We do not share the same vision of France, we do not agree on the basics," Mr. Chirac, a symbol of the moderate center right, said of Sarkozy in his recent memoirs.

In an interview with Le Figaro this week, Sarkozy argued that the real fight begins after round one. “I am engaged in a fight where, for the past four weeks, I have been alone against nine candidates…. [Round two] will be a whole other story. I will go from 10 percent to 50 percent of airtime. We will finally be fighting platform to platform, character to character.”

Should the flamboyant and irrepressible Sarkozy lose, he will be the first incumbent since the 1970s not to be voted into a second term. Should the self-styled low-key moderate Hollande win, it will put the Socialist party in power for the first time in 17 years.

Rejection of Sarkozy is personal

Sarkozy is now in the awkward position of having to garner votes both from the far right and the center to win the race.

“The defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy, if it does take place, is not based on rationality. It's not based on a judgment of his record, but based on a rejection of his person,” argued leading Paris intellectual Dominique Moisi in a talk at London’s Chatham House earlier this week.

“It's totally emotional. To some extent, it is totally unfair and irrational. But Nicolas Sarkozy has violated fundamental unwritten rules of the French political system,” Mr. Moisi said, citing Sarkozy’s penchant for constantly crossing the line between his public and private life.

“If you look at the public opinion polls, you have the feeling that a majority of Frenchmen can't stand the idea of seeing the same man invading their living and dining room through the television screen for five more years,” Moisi added. “It is as simple as that. It's not a question of program, it's a question… of personal style.”

Surprises are not out of the question. In 2002 the French electorate was shocked when, despite months of polling to the contrary, far-right candidate Jean Marie Le Pen snuck into the runoff. But analysts say the atmosphere and conditions are quite different ten years later.

The French elections allow for exit polls, but these will be banned in France until 8 p.m. Paris time, when the polls close. 

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