Hollande and Sarkozy move beyond debate: motion without movement

French presidential finalists — incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and Parti socialiste candidate François Hollande — faced off Wednesday night in what commentators are calling the most animated debate in the history of French presidential debates.

In short, Sarkozy jumped into the arena as attack dog on any number of issues — defending his record on the economy in France and in the eurozone, and going on the offensive on any number of cultural issues, such as immigration.  Hollande, in turn, gave as good as he took from Sarkozy, showing that he could rebut the president’s jabs persuasively, forcefully and calmly.

For me, the debate is crystallized by a snarky exchange over Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former IMF managing director and Party socialiste heavyweight who, until he was charged with raping a housekeeper in New York last year, was the favorite to win the Socialist nomination and the French presidency:

“I won’t accept lessons from a political party that was enthusiastically uniting behind Dominique Strauss-Kahn,”Sarkozy said in a hard-fought debate four days before France’s election.

“I was sure you were going to bring that up,” Hollande retorted. “You put him at the head of the IMF.”

In any event, the result is a presidential race with a dynamic fairly unchanged from the pre-debate dynamic, with Hollande leading by anywhere from six to nine points in advance of Sunday’s second-round vote.  If anything, Hollande gained a little ground — by pushing back at Sarkozy, he showed he is not quite the squish everyone assumes him to be.

Ultimately, I can’t help thinking that the debate is a metaphor for the second round so far: a lot of motion, but not a lot of movement.

Recapping the last few days of the second round election, what have we learned since the first-round results?

Front de gauche candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who won about 11% of the first round votes, almost immediately and enthusiastically backed Hollande in the second round.

Earlier today, centrist François Bayrou — who gave voice to the cold economic realities of France’s budget politics in a way that neither Sarkozy nor Hollande have (and for his efforts, was awarded just 9% of the first-round vote) — announced that he would vote for Hollande, but appears to have stopped short of a full-throated endorsement.

Front national candidate Marine Le Pen, who finished third in the first round with almost 18% of the vote (outpolling her father’s 2002 result that catapulted him into the second round) has called on her supporters to abstain from supporting either candidate, although polls show that many will back Sarkozy, many will abstain and a sizeable minority will even support Hollande.

Sarkozy, rather than pivoting from the right to the center, has doubled down on trying to win Front national voters — to such a degree that even some of his colleagues in the center-right are doubting the effect of his rhetoric, even as some on the left are questioning his patriotism for cozying up to Le Pen and her supporters:

In an editorial, [Libération] accused the president of “Pétaniste” zeal for using the May 1 International Workers’ Day celebration to hold a rally in defence of “real work”. The reference was to wartime collaborationist leader of Vichy France Marshall Philippe Pétain, who in 1941 declared May 1 a “national celebration of work and harmony”.

But unless every poll conducted since Hollande won the Socialist nomination has been wrong, Hollande will unseat Sarkozy on Sunday — I think the more interesting questions will then fall in rapid succession:

  • Who will join Hollande’s initial team in government?  Who will Hollande seek to appoint as prime minister and as finance minister?
  • How fast will Hollande drop his campaign plan to tax all income over €1 million at a 75% tax rate?
  • How exactly will Hollande balance the French budget by 2017?  Inquiring bondholders, to say nothing of credit rating agencies, will want to know fairly soon. (Hint: it won’t all be tax increases).
  • Will France abandon the 35-hour work week under a Socialist administration?
  • How will German chancellor Angela Merkel react to Hollande’s election? Will she move gracefully to work with Hollande toward a fiscal approach that is more pro-growth, or will she dig in even further in favor of the austerity model?
  • Perhaps more interestingly, how will Italian prime minister Mario Monti react? Will he join Hollande to open a more Keynesian front to balance the Anglo-German enthusiasm for austerity in the face of mounting evidence that budget cuts are impacting GDP growth across the eurozone?
  • In light of the Greek election on the same day (and coming so soon after the collapse of the Dutch government over budget woes, news of Spanish unemployment reaching nearly 25% and news that the United Kingdom may be entering a double-dip recession), will we be in the throes of yet another round of eurozone crisis at this time next week?
  • Will Hollande be forced, at any time in the next five years, to bring Strauss-Kahn on board — in any capacity — to his government to reassure global markets?
  • How will Hollande, the bland functionary who ran the Parti socialiste during its least effective decade in the history of the Fifth Republic, transition into his new role as the chief executive of the world’s fifth-largest economy?
  • Looking forward to the June parliamentary elections, will Ségolène Royal, Martine Aubry and other Socialist luminaries take a larger role in the campaign, or will the campaigning fall largely to Hollande? (It is very much expected and in keeping with French electoral history that the party to win the presidential election will win the June parliamentary elections).
  • If Royal indeed becomes, as expected, president of the National Assembly, how distracting will her three-decades-long partnership with Hollande become once both are in government? (More or less than the “bling offensive” of Sarkozy’s first months in office and his wedding to singer Carla Bruni?)
  • Will Mélenchon and the far left win any substantial bloc of seats in the National Assembly? If so, can they push Hollande’s administration further to the left on tax and budget issues?
  • If Sarkozy does indeed lose, who will lead the right in the June parliamentary elections? His more popular, if less charismatic prime minister François Fillon? The newly resurrected and newly respected foreign minister Alain Juppé? Union pour un Mouvement Populaire leader Jean-François Copé?
  • Can former Chirac prime minister Dominique de Villepin make a true comeback?
  • What, exactly, will the relatively young Sarkozy do in retirement? Fade away? Attempt to continue to lead the French right, in whatever role?
  • Will the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, itself in existence only from the end of the Chirac years through the Sarkozy administration, survive as the party vehicle of the French right? If not, what will replace it?
  • How will Marine Le Pen do in the June election? Can she take advantage of the right’s defeat to win a substantial number of seats in the National Assembly?  Looking forward to a future, presumably without Sarkozy, can she reshuffle the French right into a coalition that places her in the center of politics in advance of 2017?

It may well be that the next three days, the final three days of the presidential campaign, will be the most tranquil three days France will have in the near future.

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