Hollande retakes the initiative

While campaigning in Bayonne over the weekend, French president Nicolas Sarkozy was ignominiously forced to take refuge in a local bar when Basque separatists and other protestors started throwing eggs at the beleaguered French leader, shouting in Basque dialect, “Nicolas kampora!” — Nicolas get out! 

A far cry from the start of the election, when Sarkozy seemed to take the initiative in the campaign and define the terms of the presidential race for the first time, buoyed by the confidence of European leaders across the continent, including German chancellor Angela Merkel.  In the immediate aftermath of his campaign announcement, Sarkozy also bounced somewhat upward in the polls — and as recently as last week, polled just 1.5% behind frontrunning Parti socialiste candidate François Hollande.

On Tuesday, Sarkozy took his harshest line yet on immigration, arguing that there are too many foreigners in France and that the country should halve the number of immigrants it accepts, from 200,000 annually to 100,000. While the Front national candidate, Marine Le Pen, would cut that number to just 10,000, Sarkozy’s remark was a not-too-subtle tack to the right in a campaign where Sarkozy has called for referenda both on immigration and on whether to allow the unemployed to retain unemployment benefits.

Earlier this year, polls indicated that Sarkozy was in danger of losing in the first round to Le Pen.  Now, Sarkozy is in a much stronger position and appears to be attempting a repeat of his 2007 campaign, when he successfully co-opted the Front national with strong rhetoric on law and order and on immigration.  This time around, however, he remains much less popular with voters who believe he has done too little in five years in the Elysée and who are willing to give the dynamic Le Pen daughter a chance to take up the gauntlet from her father, who seemed increasingly out of touch and from an era that had already passed the torch of French politics to another generation.

Sarkozy’s gambit is to pull enough votes away from Le Pen to score a surprise first-round victory against Hollande, and then use the momentum from that victory to pull sharply to the center for the second-round vote, where I’ve argued that his best campaign tactic is to engage in a “European Rose Garden” strategy as the only candidate who can see France and the EU through the choppy waters of a continent-wide sovereign debt crisis and recession.

Other polls this week, however, seem to show Hollande with a more secure first-round lead, and all polls show him with an ever-steady second-round lead.

Hollande capped off his unremarkable trip to London last week — no calamities, but no knockout punches either — with a rally in which he formally introduced his plan to institute a 75% tax on all earning in excess of €1 million (just imagine how that would go over in nearly any Western-style democracy in the post-Reagan/Bush, post-Thatcher/Blair era).

In contrast to Sarkozy’s strategy, which requires a zig to the nearly xenophobic right in the first round and a zag to the middle in the second round, Hollande’s strategy both boosts his credibility among more leftist voters in the first round (especially with support for Front de Gauche candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon creeping up to nearly 10% in the latest polls) and draws a contrast with Sarkozy for the second round.

In announcing the 75% tax, Hollande’s message is, above all, that France needs growth, not austerity, and that the wealthiest of French society should be willing to take on a greater burden in order to allow the government to take active steps to bring about growth.

In one fell swoop, Hollande is working to take the teeth out of the far left, who have attacked Hollande for being too much a centrist (he defeated the far more leftist Martine Aubry, whose “loi Aubry” lowered the French workweek from 39 hours to 35 hours in 2000 under then-prime minister Lionel Jospin), and working to establish a credible alternative narrative for the second round of growth as against the Sarkozy austerity.

Cutting government spending is a hard sell in France in any environment, but especially so with unemployment on the rise and the entire European continent on the precipice of recession.  If the polls are any indication, Hollande is winning the argument, and doing so with a message that’s simple, draws a stark contrast, and is much more cohesive for a two-round vote than Sarkozy’s.

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