Dispatch

Down for the Count?

As France heads to the polls, Sarkozy still can't land his punches. Is this the final round for the feisty pint-sized politician?

PARIS – Like a boxer past his prime, Nicolas Sarkozy and his entourage keep making excuses for why the reigning champ of French politics hasn't already battered a lesser challenger, Socialist François Hollande.

In the middle of the brief official presidential campaign, the smack-talking Sarkozy asserted to Le Monde's weekend magazine that Hollande lacked the charisma, political skills, and decisiveness to put up a good fight. "I am going to win and I will even tell you why," Sarkozy said in comments published in late March. "He is no good and that's becoming clear. Hollande is worthless. He is worthless, you understand?" the president said emphatically, before asking the journalist to keep such un-presidential comments off the record. (Sarkozy later denied calling his opponent worthless.)

Last year, top members of Sarkozy's communications team at the presidential palace offered me their critique of Hollande, who they saw as particularly vulnerable, due to his absence of ministerial experience and what they argued was his lack of decisiveness. (Holland's supporters portray him, by contrast, as a thoughtful, decent, and consensual figure who is a welcome antidote to five years of President Sarkozy.)

The communications mavens at the Élysée Palace also outlined for me their vision for defeating Hollande. Sarkozy would declare his formal candidacy at the last possible moment (read: late winter) so that he could use his head of state gravitas as a bludgeon against the challenger's executive inexperience. After a flurry of heavy-hitting presidential actions, the legendarily deft Candidate Sarkozy would wow the French electorate, unleashing a volley of dynamic and ambitious proposals to highlight Hollande's perceived policy timidity. The overall assault would show Hollande to be a flabby upstart who lacked the chops, endurance, and peripheral vision to win the main event.

Tactically, Sarkozy would close the substantial gap in the polls that Hollande enjoyed since his nomination in the fall of 2011, and during his lightning-strike, two-month, first-round presidential campaign, mobilize the base and nab a surprise victory over nine other candidates on April 22. He would then seize on that momentum heading into a man-to-man face-off on May 6 to retain his title: president of the republic.

Despite Team Sarkozy's supreme confidence in their man, the first-round campaign has suggested a potentially devastating flaw in their analysis. The champ has clearly underestimated his main challenger, not fully understanding Hollande's key strengths: Unlike many other Socialists, he is unthreatening to the electoral center that ultimately decides French elections, he comes across as an Average Joe at a time when France craves a leader who can relate to their problems, and he has proven to be remarkably disciplined on a campaign trail for which he has proved remarkably prepared. By contrast, Sarkozy has neglected to prepare for this election anywhere near as relentlessly as he did in 2007. His inner circle repeatedly suggested in the months leading up to the official campaign that Sarkozy had an almost omnisciently lucid view of his own political plight, and that he could turn on his old campaign magic at a moment's notice.

Back on Planet France, that hasn't happened. In reality, the Sarkozy campaign has been a bit like his presidency. He has offered numerous big ideas, but without a coherent argument about where he will lead France. Worse, his failed first-term promises to bolster purchasing power, cut unemployment to 5 percent, and restore French economic dynamism have weakened the ability of this year's mega proposals to convince. Worse, from a promise-keeping standpoint, several of the signature measures that Sarkozy enacted at the start of his presidency -- like a huge 10 percent tax cut on the wealthiest 20,000 French people - were reversed on his orders as the 2008 economic crisis deepened into a global recession. And in a time when most French people want more social justice and fewer rich tax scofflaws, Sarkozy is perceived more as the embodiment of the era that led to the economic crisis, not a solution to it.

So it was hardly a surprise when Sarkozy's late entry into the formal campaign didn't have the potent punch that he dreamed of. He lagged well behind Hollande in the fall when the former Socialist Party leader became its candidate, and he still lagged the Socialist in early March, largely because the French believe that Hollande better understands their dinner-table economic concerns and that he is more likely to do something about them.

Then, in mid-March, an event happened that seemed to hold the potential to shake up the electoral fates in France. Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old Frenchman of North African lineage who grew up in a ghetto on the outskirts of Toulouse, went on a horrific rampage in which he executed three off-duty military men and attacked a Jewish school in Toulouse, murdering a rabbi and three young children. The 10-day killing spree ended in a standoff in which police marksmen killed Merah in his apartment in a shootout that authorities related in almost cinematic terms.

As the horror subsided, many political analysts concluded that the largely successful denouement of that revolting saga would play to Sarkozy's strengths. After all, France's former top cop made his name on security issues, tough talk on immigration, and an oft-stated desire for greater integration, especially among French Muslims, into the fabric of society. Sarkozy's notably presidential handling of the Merah saga -- at least until he said that it was "a little bit" like France's 9/11 -- did bring a jump in the polls, at least initially.

But while France was horrified by Merah's escapades (and his radical Islamist justifications), the country was not terrorized in the way that the United States was by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. There has been no core transformation of French society or of its worldview, and there has been little sign that the French nervously await the next stages of a broader assault at any moment.

When the French were asked about their most serious concerns following Merah's death, they cited, in order: purchasing power, employment, and the economy. (Security and immigration tied for 8th place.) A more recent poll indicates that 86 percent of the French are worried about their own spending power, with half expecting to limits their purchases over the next year.

As kitchen-table issues have re-emerged amid worsening economic data -- unemployment is over 10 percent and rising, while an April 20 Bloomberg article calculates that corporate France lost $163 billion on Sarkozy's watch -- the president's dreams of a sustained surge in the run-up to the first-round vote has fallen short.

Six polls released in the days before the Sunday vote suggested that the momentum had returned to Hollande's side. Four polls give the Socialist a slight lead and one shows a tie, with only a rolling poll that has a built-in delay placing Sarkozy in the lead. Worse, in the poll that really matters -- the theoretical Hollande v. Sarkozy run-off on May 6 -- Sarkozy faces defeats ranging from decisive (7 percent) to crushing (14 percent).

While re-election was never going to be easy -- Sarkozy wouldn't be the first European leader washed away by the economic crisis -- the president has made many mistakes, including some major tactical campaign errors.

For one, he and his people worked hard to dissuade his natural allies on the center-right and hard right from running for president alongside him and nine other candidates. The concern was that they might sap enough votes to prevent him from making it into the run-off. (The latest polls show him with enough of a lead over the third and fourth place candidates that this wouldn't have been an issue.) But playing it safe in the first round means that he is unlikely to have enough of a reservoir of votes to draw upon in the second round to cross the 50-percent threshold.

Sarkozy's pathway to victory relies on a less rational strategy that has long been associated with the Socialists. He was aiming to snag the lead in the first-round "beauty contest" vote to create psychological momentum going into the run-off. (The idea being that a majority of the electorate likes a winner and will choose a president largely because he is the victor in the first round, regardless of the issues.)

Among the problems with this strategy, especially for an unpopular incumbent, is that French law mandates nearly equal media coverage for all 10 presidential candidates. So Sarkozy and Hollande are on nearly even media par with popular secondary candidates like the far-right Marine Le Pen and the far-left's Jean-Luc Mélenchon, not to mention true fringe candidates, like the New Anti-Capitalist Party's Philippe Poutou, who scores around .5 percent in most polls.

Sarkozy's hand-chosen prime minister, François Fillon, lamented to journalists while campaigning in a café in eastern Paris on April 19 that equal media access rules create an unfair playing field for the incumbent in the first round of voting. "Nine candidates have been beating on the president ... for five weeks," Fillon noted. The day before, Sarkozy complained said that the French system makes it "nine against one."

While it is true that the other candidates in the first round spend much of their time galvanizing popular disdain about Sarkozy's leadership style and his policies, Sarkozy's right-wing political current -- which has won the last three presidential elections, going back 17 years -- hasn't had much trouble with this format before. But the issue is less about other politicians shepherding the voter disgust and anxiety that have been blowing over the French electorate than it is about those actual sentiments, which have been burbling, cauldron-like, in the three and a half years since the economic crisis struck.

The result is electoral winds that combine elements of raw Tea Party fury and Occupy Movement passions. Ms. Le Pen, on the far right, has ridden the scapegoating of immigrants and railing at an out-of-touch political elite -- while also trashing un-integrated ethnic and religious minorities as a de facto cultural invasion that unmoors France from its Western traditions -- to 15 percent support.

On the far-left, the colorful Mr. Mélenchon has assailed France's "corrupt" economic elite and promised to confiscate all income over 360,000 euros per year. Santa Claus-like, he has also pledged to lower the retirement age, increase the minimum wage by about 20 percent, decrease rents, and offer free water and electricity to the poor. His Leftist Front held a "Re-take the Bastille" rally in which he fired up the crowd with equal parts humor and bombast, by saying: "The France of revolutions is back! 1789!" He then switched into accented English to add for foreign media in attendance: "As you see, dear BBC, we are very dangerous!"

He's one of the few truly dynamic forces of the campaign -- the French media has referred to Mélenchon as a "revelation." (Mélenchon even garnered his own version of the Obama Girl, albeit with more R & B flavor.) Electorally, if Hollande appears to have a fairly open path to the presidency, it may be thanks to Mélenchon, who is the first serious leftist to make a stab at winning back the working class electorate that the Socialists long ago conceded to the right and the far right. And while Le Pen adamantly refused to back Sarkozy if he is the right's candidate in the run-off, Mélenchon has promised to back any second-round candidate, including Hollande, who comes from the left.

The result is that Sarkozy faces the seemingly insurmountable challenge of bringing together enough centrists and hard right votes on his two flanks to win the presidency. But when he shifts one way, he almost invariably alienates people on the other side.

Hollande, meanwhile, largely needs to convey enough competence and pragmatism to be electable as an anti-Sarkozy alternative. When he speaks of leading France, he explains that he must "translate this anger" into constructive policy. He offers improbable promises that he will be a president of France that is "stronger than the markets," as he said at a recent rally in Paris. (Words that Sarkozy himself might say, but less convincingly, given the economic insecurity that has spread in France during his presidency.) "I understand the anger about the world's disorder, the shortcomings of Europe, the rise of inequality in France," Hollande told the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche recently. "I must express them, but above all, I must translate them into government action."

Back in Sarkoland, his entourage suggests that their prizefighter will still rise to the occasion, as of April 23, when the run-off campaign begins. That is, the president's people say, when the real fight begins: No more distractions from blowhard secondary candidates; media coverage divided evenly between two men in a face-to-face confrontation (including a likely televised debate or two).

In that mano-a-mano battle, the time for excuses will be over. It is, Team Sarkozy argues, when their man will really start landing his punches. But down on points, Sarkozy will surely need a knockout.

JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

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