France’s election — three weeks to go

It’s been a while since I’ve posted much about France’s upcoming presidential election, and in large part that’s because the past week has been somewhat subdued in the wake of the Toulouse shooting.

But there are three weeks left until the first round and almost five weeks left until the runoff, with a parliamentary election to follow a month thereafter.

So where is the race headed?

Nicolas Sarkozy has shown he is leagues ahead of his competitors in terms of raw political talent.  He can move from European statesman to right-wing demagogue and back to statesman with dexterity.  One moment, he’s the sober-minded man of the hour to stabilize Europe, the next he’s arguing to halve immigration, the next he’s assuming the mantle of counter-terroist-in-chief (never mind that he presided over an administration that knew about, and failed to apprehend, the Toulouse killer prior to his deadly shooting sprees).

The past month of the campaign has not been flawless for Sarkozy, but there’s a sense that the momentum has switched from frontrunner François Hollande to Sarkozy — if not necessarily in support, then certainly in setting the campaign’s narrative.

Hollande’s strategy — to show up as the most credible ‘non-Sarkozy’ and riding his polling lead into the Elysée — is looking ever more precarious.  His cautious approach has left a space for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose fiery rhetoric has galvanized France’s left.

As such, a once formidable first-round lead has been reduced to a dead heat (at best).  Certainly, Hollande still leads polls for the second round, but if you add together the share of the vote currently going to Sarkozy, François Bayrou and Marine Le Pen, it’s not difficult to foresee Hollande losing his second-round lead as well.

Hollande has not given French voters a reason to support him in the race — there’s no animating issue or cause or energy behind his candidacy, other than “I’m not Sarkozy.”  Sarkozy’s energy may be erratic and it may often lead to political and policy dead ends, but there’s no mistaking the kinetic heat radiating from his circle.

As France goes to the polls, two overriding issues dominate all else.

The first is the same issue facing every European country (and nearly every Western democracy): how to restore middle-class prosperity and economic security while remaining competitive in a global economy.

Both candidates accept that, in an era when French debt is no longer rated ‘AAA’ that large deficits are no longer an option — Sarkozy would generally cut more to make up budget differences, Hollande would tax more.  But beyond that?  The grand rupture that Sarkozy promised in 2007 has amounted to a small fabric tear, aside from raising the French retirement age.  Hollande’s most tangible plan to tax income over €1 million is out of sync with even the most progressive governments throughout Europe.

The other issue more existential — in half a century, France will be demographically unrecognizable from the post-war France that established the Fifth Republic and started building the apparatus that would become the European Union.  Already, some neighborhoods of Marseille today feel more “foreign” and “less French” than some neighborhoods of Beirut.

One response to that is a “fortress France” approach, where the state limits immigration and takes affirmative steps to define the French identity.  Le Pen and Sarkozy (in less dogmatic but in no less populist terms) have made clear that they generally stand with this approach.

Another response is to embrace diversity and the increasingly globalized world and celebrate that “France” as a concept and as a nation will be more racially and ethnically diverse in half a century’s time — Mélenchon would welcome and indeed hasten that moment.

But Hollande?  Nary a word uttered about it.

And that’s really the heart of the problem with his campaign. It’s timid. It’s cautious. It’s meek. This is why the Mélenchon phenomenon has been so damaging — where the far-left candidate has made a full-throated call for the values of diversity and tolerance, Hollande’s campaign seems to float in the wind.  It lurches to the center here, lurches to the left there, rudderless all the while.

Hollande seems more than ever a squish, the last candidate standing by default — not caught up in a prostitution ring (like Dominique Strauss-Kahn), not already a presidential election loser (like Ségolène Royal), and not suspended in the mindset that France is still somehow in the Mitterand era (Martine Aubry and Laurent Fabius, for starters).  Even as the Clinton-Blair-Brown “new left” movements have come and gone in the United States and the United Kingdom, the leaders of the Parti soicaliste never bothered trying to modernize — not in the 1990s, not in the 2000s and not now, even as the party seems poised to totter into power.

So long as French voters indicate they are embarrassed by and frustrated with Sarkozy, they will remain open to — and even predisposed to supporting — Hollande.  But no one is going to make the case for him. If he wants to be the next president of France, simply being unobjectionable won’t be enough.

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