Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

President Sarkozy’s Desperate Mayday

With friends and foes ganging up on him, Nicolas Sarkozy's run for a second term is looking bleak.

Marc Piasecki/Getty Images
Marc Piasecki/Getty Images
Marc Piasecki/Getty Images

PARIS – Remember May 1. Though the French election is still almost a week away, today may have been the day that hope abandoned President Nicolas Sarkozy and his run for a second term. As the French gathered in the streets to celebrate May Day, with dueling rallies around the country, a final twist of the knife may have doomed the incumbent.

And yet, it's not as if he couldn't see it coming. While France's lightning fast two-week presidential run-off between President Sarkozy and François Hollande offers something of a perfect storm for allegations of epic but nearly impossible to disprove corruption allegations and last-minute attacks over sleazy associates, it also allows for maximum impact of surprise endorsements, giving them the potential to create dramatic last-minute voter shifts. Or betrayals.

May 1 is not just a workers' holiday in France (when good leftists hit the streets), it's also a day of celebration of Joan of Arc, who the far-right National Front Party treats like their patron saint. That party's presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, recently earned nearly 18 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election -- an unprecedented tally, though not enough to get her into the run-off. It did make her into something of a kingmaker, though -- or a king killer. Sarkozy has worked to draw Le Pen's sizable support into his camp, but Le Pen it seems, would rather burn him at the stake. It's been quite a show.

PARIS – Remember May 1. Though the French election is still almost a week away, today may have been the day that hope abandoned President Nicolas Sarkozy and his run for a second term. As the French gathered in the streets to celebrate May Day, with dueling rallies around the country, a final twist of the knife may have doomed the incumbent.

And yet, it’s not as if he couldn’t see it coming. While France’s lightning fast two-week presidential run-off between President Sarkozy and François Hollande offers something of a perfect storm for allegations of epic but nearly impossible to disprove corruption allegations and last-minute attacks over sleazy associates, it also allows for maximum impact of surprise endorsements, giving them the potential to create dramatic last-minute voter shifts. Or betrayals.

May 1 is not just a workers’ holiday in France (when good leftists hit the streets), it’s also a day of celebration of Joan of Arc, who the far-right National Front Party treats like their patron saint. That party’s presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, recently earned nearly 18 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election — an unprecedented tally, though not enough to get her into the run-off. It did make her into something of a kingmaker, though — or a king killer. Sarkozy has worked to draw Le Pen’s sizable support into his camp, but Le Pen it seems, would rather burn him at the stake. It’s been quite a show.

Thus far, the remarkably substance-less run-off campaign has been driven largely on empty rhetoric, personality, and the candidates’ styles. On one side, there is the warm-milk candidate, Hollande, an Average Joe of the sort that rarely rises to the top in presidential politics. On the other, there’s the tough-talking Sarkozy, a politician capable of channeling a political persona a few notes shy of a character on The Soprano’s. Do the French want warm milk in bed or a third double shot of espresso at the counter — every day for the next five years?

If France was like the rest of the democratic world, you might expect Mr. Tough Guy to kick Mr. Nice Guy’s ass. And the numbers might appear to back him up. After all, while Hollande won the 10-candidate first-round with nearly 29 percent of the vote, the majority of the electorate picked politicians with more natural ideologically affinities for President Sarkozy, who picked up 27 percent of the vote. Le Pen grabbed her eye-catching 18 percent, the historically center-right parliamentarian François Bayrou (who was a minister alongside Sarkozy a decade ago) picked up 9 percent, and another conservative earned nearly 2 percent.

Do the math: Sarkozy appears to have a reservoir of 56 percent affinity to tap into, so he should be riding toward an easy victory — or at least he would be in a more conventional parliamentary democracy. In such countries, a politician of Sarkozy’s variable but largely right-wing stripes would simply negotiate endorsements from the leaders of near-enough parties, horse-trading on particular issues and offering promises of ministerial appointments. It’s something that should come naturally to Sarkozy, a trained lawyer who is strongly inclined toward finagling agreements.

The reality, though, is that Sarkozy faces huge obstacles. More than half of the electorate feels intense Sarko fatigue (a feeling that various party leaders can relate to). It isn’t just that 73 percent of the electorate didn’t vote for the president in the first round; most people say that they actively voted against him (even if they dispersed their anti-Sarkozy vote among many candidates).

Le Pen knows those voters well. Early on Tuesday in an interview on Europe 1 radio, she highlighted the president’s changing stances on an issue that is important to her anti-immigrant electorate: giving foreign residents the right to vote in local elections. It is a part of the Socialist platform and Sarkozy’s campaign has been pounding the left on the issue — even though Sarkozy repeatedly suggested in the past that it was a good idea. "He is in favor," Le Pen said, except "when we are in an electoral period."

She went on to note her "long memory" of Sarkozy’s promises on the 2007 campaign trail, when he wooed the far-right successfully enough to humiliate her father, the National Front’s previous presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, before ignoring many of those same pledges. "What has he done since then?" Marine asked. "He is capable of saying everything and anything to get elected."

Still, politicians often play up the weaknesses of politicians who they will ultimately rally behind. (Think Santorum and Romney.) In a parliamentary democracy, it can be a part of the negotiation.

It is not inherently any more serious than the disdain that Le Pen and Bayrou have repeatedly expressed toward Sarkozy’s leadership style, personality, and policies in recent years. Yes, suddenly backing him might undermine their credibility with rile supporters, but party leaders have overcome far more, especially in exchange for a share of power. Besides, Sarkozy has been flattering Le Pen’s voters in the run-off.

The president is aware that his relentless vertigo-inducing ideological lane changing has created suspicion about him all across the right side of the political spectrum. Many center-right voters were offended by his populist rhetoric (aimed at seducing the far right) and about numerous ethical questions, not to mention his deficit spending, while far-right voters feel that he failed to deliver on promises to limit immigration, crackdown on entitlement cheats and petty criminals, and stem the influence of Islam, which some perceive as a sort of cultural invasion.

In fact, it was the tenor of Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign that pushed the formerly center-right Bayrou to the center of France’s political spectrum (and closer to the Socialist Party leadership, who would, by and large, come out as Social-Democrats if they weren’t convinced that it would lead the left wing of the party to abandon them). But with various polls suggesting that Bayrou’s supporters will divide fairly evenly between Sarkozy and Hollande, the president has made his tactical decision.

Sarkozy could eke across the 50-percent threshold on election day, if he earns the lock-step support of Le Pen’s followers. While a recent poll indicated that 64 percent of Sarkozy’s political movement wants him to come to an electoral agreement with the National Front, Le Pen has long made clear that this was unlikely while Sarkozy remained in the picture. She sees Sarkozy as an obstacle that she wants to permanently remove from the political playing field. The 43 year-old National Front leader is playing the long game. In her tactical analysis, if Sarkozy endures a career-ending defeat on May 6, it could leave his political movement in shards. This, in turn, would allow National Front voters to join together with French "patriots" to become one of the nation’s primary political forces, under her leadership. And, when Hollande’s response to tough economic times proves inadequate, the theory goes, Le Pen could end up with France’s largest voting block. (Her inner circle has already taken to calling her the leader of the post-Sarkozy opposition.)

The National Front’s jubilation over the first-round election results was clear on April 22 when Le Pen declared on television that it is "just a beginning."

"Nothing," she asserted, "will be as it was before." She then hit the dance floor to get down to 1980s-era French new wave music, projecting an image of her party that was inconceivable under her old-school far-right provocateur father.

So it made sense when Le Pen stepped up to the microphone before thousands of supporters at the Place de l’Opéra in Paris on May 1 and yelled: "I will vote blank," which is to say for neither candidate. (In France, this is perceived as a form of electoral protest.) "I will grant neither confidence, nor a mandate" to Sarkozy or François Hollande.

(More than 20 percent of first round National Front voters have suggested to pollsters that they will also vote blank, or abstain, and nearly another 20 percent — get this! — claim they will vote for the Socialist candidate, purely to drive Sarkozy from the political stage.)

Le Pen called the promises of France’s ruling party and of its Socialist opposition "mirages," and she insisted that "there is no longer a presidential election…. We are witnessing a recruitment competition, a job interview to hire a director of operations for the [European Central Bank] under the tutelage of the IMF." The loser of the election (read: Sarkozy) will be "solely responsible" for his fate, she added.

Barring a stunning campaign twist — the best moment for it would be the sole presidential debate on May 3 — Le Pen may have mortally wounded the president, who trails his Socialist competitor by 6 to 12 percent, in various polls.

As President Sarkozy nurses his wounds, he’ll just have to hope that someone else, through some miracle, will come and rescue him. Until then, he’ll probably be hearing the echoes of today’s dramatic events ringing in his ears: May Day! May Day!

Eric Pape is a writer in Paris.

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