"Clomp! CLOMP! Clomp! CLOMP!"" That's the sound of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's high-heeled boots as they grow closer, closer, closer to Francois Hollande, the gentle lamb offered up by the hapless Socialist Party in next month's presidential election. Six months ago, Hollande lead Sarkozy 39 percent to 24 percent in the polls. Four months ago, it was 31.5 percent to 26 percent. And earlier this week, it was...Sarko, 28.5 percent, Hollande, 27 percent. Hollande still holds a strong lead in a hypothetical run-off between the two men, but Socialist partisans are beginning to tremble. Last week, the president debated Laurent Fabius, a leading Socialist standard-bearer, on television. "Sarko destroyed him," a leftist policy intellectual said to me grimly. Clomp!
Much of the press attention here has been focused on Sarkozy's utterly shameless courtship of France's xenophobic voters, most of them followers of the far-right National Front. In the debate with Fabius, Sarkozy said that France has too many foreigners, and repeated a proposal he had made to cut the annual number of legal immigrants almost in half. After National Front leader Marine Le Pen made the absurd suggestion that all meat in the Paris region was being slaughtered according to Islamic rules, known as halal, Sarkozy declared, with a straight face, that "the biggest concern of French people is halal meat." The New York Times accused Sarkozy of taking "the low road" in a way that will be "damaging to French society," if not necessarily to his own electoral prospects.
But the low road is where Sarkozy lives. He made a name for himself in 2005 by calling immigrant rioters racaille, or "scum," and more recently proposed deporting gypsies from France. Sarkozy is, in American terms, a little bit of Rudy Giuliani and a great deal of Richard Nixon. "The French recognize in him something that is in them, too," says Marc Weitzmann, a French novelist whose work captures modern political life. "That's why the French vote for him, and hate him at the same time."
But what's wrong with the Socialists? In 2007, they nominated Segolene Royale, an eccentric figure whom Sarkozy feasted off in the presidential debates. Hollande is, bizarrely, her ex-unmarried-spouse. He is, however, a much better candidate -- a careful thinker and a gentleman, witty and wry in the French manner. The one thing he lacks, unfortunately, is the all-important gift for the visceral -- this in the face of a man, Sarkozy, with a dark genius for the lowest common denominator. Hollande has been coasting on the public's overwhelming desire to get rid of Sarkozy, but it now seems that he won't be able to coast all the way to the Elysée.
This time around, France is in the midst of an economic crisis for which Hollande must come up with convincing answers if he is to close the sale with voters. France's unemployment rate is hovering around 10 percent, and its growth rate is around zero. Earlier this year, Standard & Poor downgraded France's credit rating (along with that of eight other European countries). Sarkozy ran in 2007 as a man prepared to wrench France into the future, and he still enjoys that reputation. Hollande, too, has tried to present himself as a modernizer and a pragmatist. "He's not stuck in nostalgia for the 20th century, or the 19th century for that matter," as one Socialist leader recently put it. His platform emphasizes fiscal prudence, economic growth and relatively modest expansion of the public sector (through he plans to hire 60,000 educators).
That is, in effect, one side of his reaction to France's predicament. But it is the quieter side. In public, he is the tribune of public outrage over the lords of finance. At his first campaign rally in January, Hollande declared that his "real adversary" was not Sarkozy but rather the "faceless rulers" of global finance. And when pushed into a corner, he has darted left. In late February, with Sarko closing in, Hollande unveiled a proposal to create a new tax bracket for those annually making in excess of 1 million euros, or $1.3 million, with a marginal tax rate of 75 percent. Even Ed Miliband, the leader of Britain's Labor Party, blanched at the proposal. Hollande seemed to be playing to French resentment of capitalism and wealth as cynically as Sarkozy was with the immigrant issue. Having spooked the forces of finance, the Socialists quickly backpedaled by having Fabius declare that the new tax rate would be probably just a temporary measure.