‘Hollande will destroy the French economy in two days’

That blunt messaging is one of the reasons why Nicolas Sarkozy still has a shot to win reelection.

He also claimed that, if elected, Parti socialiste candidate François Hollande would turn France into another Greece.

All of this would be fabulously amazing positioning for a president whose record on balancing the budget is not stellar — public debt has gone up under his watch.  It’s more amazing when you consider that only in December, Sarkozy presided over France losing its ‘AAA’ credit rating from a major ratings agency.

Last week, Sarkozy pounced on the news that the French deficit for 2011, projected to be 5.7%, was, in fact, only 5.2% — never letting horrible be the enemy of terrible.

Even as unemployment hovers around 10%, last week’s GDP report also showed that France grew at a near-recessionary 0.2% pace in the final quarter of 2011.  Nonetheless, Sarkozy managed to turn even that into an opportunity to attack his opponent:

“The Socialists said France was in recession, as if they actually enjoyed it every time there was bad news for France,” Sarkozy told Europe 1 radio, announcing the 2011 deficit figure.

You cannot imagine Dominique Strauss-Kahn, for example, letting Sarkozy push him around like this.

You may believe that Sarkozy himself is not quite incredibly up to the standard he has established.  But given a choice between Sarkozy and Hollande, no one can honestly believe that Hollande would lead the Parti socialiste in the National Assembly, with Ségolène Royal and Martine Aubry at the helm, to balance the budget by 2016.

Sarkozy’s grand reform agenda from 2007 may have had less than promising results, but he has had some success — for example, raising the retirement age from 60 to 62.  And he knows that even if voters take his proposal only half-seriously, no one thinks Hollande has yet shown himself to take France’s budget deficit seriously — his main plan is to promulgate a 75% tax on all income in excess of €1 million.

The press conference is yet another example of the audacious campaign Sarkozy has run — zigging right one moment to co-opt Front national candidate Marine Le Pen on immigration and Schengen and law and order (especially after Toulouse), zagging around the next moment to present himself as the sober-minded European statesman.  Remember the Merkozy love-fest from the weeks leading up to Sarkozy’s reelection announcement?

With Sarkozy no longer in danger of Le Pen coming close in the first round, he’s turning his fire on Hollande, who is now dealing with a surging Jean-Luc Mélenchon to his left.  Mélenchon won’t win enough votes to endanger Hollande’s spot in the second round, but he’s forced Hollande to spend time moving to shore up leftist voters and he’s highlighted how utterly bland and cautious the Hollande campaign seems.

In fact, Sarkozy seems to have taken a small, but significant edge in the first round against Hollande in a handful of the most recent polls.  The latest polls also show Hollande with a shrinking lead in the second round — down to six points in the latest IFOP poll.  Yes, he still leads, but it’s not a good trend, especially with just over a month to go until the runoff vote.

And Hollande’s response? Left-unity fairy-tale photo-ops with Royal — who lost the last presidential race to Sarkozy by six points.

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