PARIS — Just two months and a week before the French people mark their ballots, President Nicolas Sarkozy "came out" in a live Feb. 15 evening news broadcast as a candidate for reelection. In a face-to-face interview with one of France's most beloved newscasters, Laurence Ferrari, Sarkozy said that if he didn't run, he would feel like a captain of a ship "abandoning his post" in the midst of an epic storm.
As a non-story, the notoriously ambitious Sarkozy's official campaign declaration was up there with Elton John's "re-coming out" in the 1980s, after this 1976 interview with Rolling Stone magazine. But the president, who has often sought inspiration from across the Atlantic, also quietly borrowed a tactic from California's freewheeling political scene when he promised popular referendums on the "big decisions" facing France. It's a risky strategy for an unpopular head of state before his own election, and one that threatens to undermine his desire to be seen as a strong leader -- ironic given that his reelection slogan is: La France Forte.
Sarkozy's vigorous non-campaign for the presidency has been going on for months, if not years. Last summer, the president's communications team was privately mulling how best to use the power of the presidency as the ultimate campaign tool in a time of crisis. One team member pointed out to me that the best strategy might be to simply be president -- before the cameras, of course -- rather than reduce their man to a mere candidate. As part of that logic, Sarkozy would declare his candidacy as late as possible -- which is what he has done.
After all, the habits of a French president can be persuasive in and of themselves. The presidency, in addition to embodying tremendous real power in France, retains enormous symbolic resonance for the collective French psyche, refracting bits of the near-sacred power of long-lost kings.
Head of State Sarkozy also enjoyed practical benefits that would have been lost to Candidate Sarkozy. As president, he was able to use state funds to pay for visits with patent electoral aims -- such as a Dec. 1 speech before 5,000 die-hard supporters in the solidly pro-Sarkozy Mediterranean town of Toulon, where he called for a new European treaty and spoke of saving the euro.
The cash-rich presidential travel and events budgets are nothing to shake a stick at in a country where campaign funding is largely public and tightly regulated. While America's 2008 presidential candidates combined to spend $1.7 billion, a top-tier French presidential candidate in 2007 had the right to spend just 16 million euros (approximately $21 million), with the possibility of getting half of their party's money back from the state.
In a sign that President Sarkozy might have overstepped campaign-spending rules in recent months, his political party will likely end up retroactively reimbursing the French state for some Toulon-like trips. (Now that Sarkozy is a formal candidate, France's independent broadcasting authority, which has long kept track of his media coverage, is also expected to retroactively debit time from his future media access, as per its balanced coverage guidelines.)