|Sarkozy hitting on Laura Bush. Ah, these Frenchies...|
Not that this should surprise anyone of course. He is a dangerous opponent in any campaign, as the hapless Ségolène Royal found to her great cost in 2007 when he mauled her to metaphorical death.
His would-be victim this time is François Hollande, who has so far been the sole vector of his venom. In just two days Hollande has been accused by Sarkozy of lying from morning till night and of being vague, a throwback to the past, and dishonest.
This tactic is likely to continue right up to the last moments of the campaign, because Sarkozy cannot rely on his results alone to persuade voters to reelect him. His best hopes lie in keeping the spotlight on perceived failings in Hollande’s campaign and policy offer.
One of those perceived failings is Hollande’s reputation as a somewhat insipid and indecisive politician. Sarkozy is sure to use this to try and demonstrate that it is precisely this supposed flaw in Hollande which would prevent France from implementing the many reforms that Sarkozy claims are going to be necessary to get the country’s economy back on track and reduce unemployment, which has reached record levels.
That is why Sarkozy’s accusation of lying targeted Hollande’s recent and highly unflattering declarations concerning the world of finance, banks and the markets. He knows that the economy is the Achilles heel of the Parti Socialiste and he is not likely to let voters forget it.
Will this tactic work and get him reelected? The answer to that question depends largely on Hollande’s reaction to it. Sarkozy is obviously out to destabilise him, to get him to lose his usual affable and avuncular cool and say something he would regret. Again, Royal would testify to the efficiency of that particular ploy as she fell for it hook, line and sinker.
So far, Hollande seems to have sensed the danger and is quite rightly refusing to rise to the bait and enter into a direct confrontation with Sarkozy, saying that he expected this noisy start to his opponent’s campaign and that he thinks candidates “need to convince the French, not each other.”
This will not be enough on its own to win against Sarkozy however, and he is still faced with the challenge of persuading voters that his policies are credible. This involves striking a tricky balance between keeping the challenge up on Sarkozy’s record and proposing an alternative that voters will believe.
Sarkozy has another – if lesser - threat to his reelection to take into account, and that is the fact that Modem leader François Bayrou and the Front National’s Marine le Pen are both concentrating their attacks on him, thus sparing Hollande from criticism, at least for now. With these two candidates polling a total of roughly 25% of the first round votes, Sarkozy, who is nevertheless widely expected to reach the second round, will have to woo some of their voters if, as is expected, he faces off against Hollande.
But Sarkozy’s biggest obstacle by far to reelection is himself. The French like to feel a sense of affection and admiration for their presidents, and Sarkozy has never managed to convince many of them that he is anything else but a bling-bling vulgar parvenu who is debasing the presidential function. Whatever goes wrong in France is rightly or wrongly put down to his policies. I even heard a gentleman complain to a fellow passenger on a bus recently that Sarkozy is to blame for fare-dodging teenagers on public transport in Lyon. “C’est la faute à Sarko” has become a standard joke reaction to anything that goes wrong. Your sink is blocked? “C’est la faute à Sarko.”
More than any other, this handicap is going to be very difficult to overcome for Nicolas Sarkozy. If the French don’t feel a real affinity with a candidate, he or she has got real problems. Hollande is decidedly not France’s most inspiring presidential candidate ever – indeed he’s only a candidate because DSK decided to commit political suicide in a New York hotel – but anti-Sarko sentiment is still running high.
Sarkozy does have one ray of hope though, in the form of a recent poll which showed that although the French don’t rate his results over the last 5 years very highly, he is, paradoxically, still believed to be more capable of getting the country back on track than Hollande, despite people’s dislike of him.
Could this save him? Can he win? It’s still too early to tell. His voting intention scores have increased since he declared his candidature, but Hollande is still a long way ahead.
One thing’s for sure though. If Nicolas Sarkozy is reelected, he will go down in French history either as a brilliant political campaigner who won two unwinnable elections in succession, or a politician who pulled off the political robbery of the century, au choix.