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.