Fully 15 candidates have declared, although some may drop out before the first round of voting on April 22nd. They include a Green (Eva Joly), an anti-capitalist allied to the Communists (Jean-Luc Mélenchon), a Gaullist former prime minister (Dominique de Villepin), a Catholic traditionalist (Christine Boutin) and other fringe characters. But only four have any chance of making it into the second round run-off on May 6th: François Hollande, the Socialist candidate, Sarkozy, Le Pen, and François Bayrou, a centrist.
Polls done at this stage suggest that Hollande will win. The latest for Paris-Match gives him 29.5% in the first round to just 23% for Sarkozy. In a run-off, his margin of victory would be a crushing 58% to 42%. Hollande has done a remarkable job of transforming himself from a gently mocked figure into what the French call présidentiable. A former party boss, he has never held a ministerial job.
Back when Dominique Strauss-Kahn was the natural Socialist contender, before resigning from the IMF amid a sex scandal, Hollande was still being derided within his party as charisma-free. One nickname was Flanby, a brand of caramel pudding. Ségolène Royal, his former partner and the Socialists’ defeated 2007 candidate, once cruelly asked Le Figaro newspaper: “Can the French name a single thing that he has achieved in 30 years of political life?”
After a stirring speech last month, however, in which he hit all the familiar Socialist buttons by promising to tax the rich and to create equality, Hollande has made himself look — to the left, at least — like a plausible president-in-waiting.
To help achieve this, he walks, sounds and gesticulates like François Mitterrand, the Socialists’ only recent president, last elected in 1988. To the French, Mitterrand embodied something reassuring: “eternal France”, or “a tranquil force”, his campaign slogan. He once denounced “the veritable enemy…the power of money”; today, Hollande declares that his “veritable adversary….is the world of finance”.
To match his tone, Hollande’s manifesto is a classic tax-and-spend programme: €20 billion (£17 billion) of new spending, to be financed by taxes on salaries, wealth, firms, banks and financial income. He says he will reduce the minimum retirement age from 62 years to 60 for those who have worked long enough, and hire 60,000 new teachers.
Nicolas Bavarez, a commentator, calls all this “falsely reasonable”. Hollande promises deficit-reduction (reasonable), but almost entirely through tax increases (unreasonable).
If Hollande is playing Mitterrand, Sarkozy seems to be reaching for De Gaulle. The French may not like Sarkozy, and have not forgiven his early errors of taste and judgement, but his bet is that in troubled times they will prefer a man with experience.
The French appreciate his efforts, alongside Germany’s Angela Merkel, to resolve the euro zone’s crisis. In private Sarkozy seems to be ready for the race, comparing himself to a long-distance athlete. In public, his words of choice are “resistance”, “sangfroid” and “courage”.
At the same time, Sarkozy is squeezed by Bayrou in the centre. A perennial candidate who emerges from his farm in the Pyrenees every five years to run for the presidency despite lacking much of a party, deputies or finance, Bayrou could pick up disappointed Sarkozy voters. He warned early of the dangers of unsustainable public debt, and his public-finances manifesto, unveiled on February 1st, is the only one to insist on curbing public spending.
The odds are still that Hollande will face Sarkozy in the run-off. And the president’s options for pulling off a last-minute surge are narrowing. He claims to have some surprises in store, and in the past has been a formidable campaigner.
Sarkozy, though, will need preternatural skills to achieve a victory against Hollande. His disapproval rating is 68% — and no president under the fifth republic that unpopular has ever won a re-election bid.