Eight reasons why Hollande won - and Sarkozy lost

Wed, May 9, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:Some of the factors behind Nicolas Sarkozy’s defeat can be traced back to 2007, but the coup de grâce came last week

FIRST. 9.7 PER CENT

No trend did more damage to Nicolas Sarkozy’s chances of re-election than the unemployment rate, which is forecast to hit a 12-year high of 9.7 per cent next month.

This would undermine any president, but it was particularly tough for Sarkozy given that he had built his 2007 campaign around the theme of work.

Whereas previous presidents could blame their government, Sarkozy’s style of micro-managing hyper-présidence left him exposed. In an oft-repeated 2007 TV interview, he said he would have failed if the jobless rate was not down to 5 per cent by 2012. The public took him at his word.

SECOND. SARKOZY'S STYLE

Within 14 months of taking power, Sarkozy’s popularity ratings had hit 30 per cent. Some of his boldest and most successful reforms were introduced in this period, and the financial crisis had yet to strike. The early collapse in support was connected less to policy than to his personal style and his abrasive, flashy personality – the Rolex watches, the election-night party with rich friends, the holiday aboard a billionaire’s yacht, and the public exhibition he made of his private life. It was a jarring break with the ways of presidents past, and people didn’t like it.

During the campaign, Sarkozy apologised for not showing appropriate “solemnity” in that first year, but the damage was done. His dire poll ratings barely shifted for the next four years.

THIRD. LES AFFAIRES

None of the scandals of the past five years came close to bringing down the government, but one by one they chipped away at its credibility. There was Sarkozy’s attempt to give his student son a plum post in Paris’s business district, or the foreign minister who had to be replaced after offering French crowd-control know-how to Tunisia’s soon-to-be ousted dictator in early 2011.

The most damaging was the Bettencourt party financing scandal, a long-running saga that centred on allegations that the ruling UMP party had illegally received money from France’s richest woman. It cost one minister his job, and judicial inquiries were set up to investigate claims, since confirmed, that the secret service spied on journalists to trace their sources on the story.

FORTH. SARKOZY'S HANDLING OF HIS RIGHT FLANK

The key to Sarkozy’s 2007 win was a masterful duel strategy that won over the centre ground while filleting the National Front by reducing its support to 10 per cent. There were no radical departures on crime and immigration under Sarkozy, but two things did happen: symbolic action (expulsion of small groups of Roma, televised dawn raids, and so on) was stepped up, and the rhetorical assault grew louder.

The effect was that Sarkozy gradually lost the centre ground, brought tensions in his own party to the surface and never did enough to please the far right. In 2012, Marine Le Pen retrieved all the votes her party had lost to Sarkozy in 2007 and added one million new ones.

FIFTH. THE DSK FACTOR

This time last year, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was the leading candidate to win the Socialist Party nomination, and François Hollande was an unfancied outsider. Then, in mid-May 2011, came the thunderbolt of DSK’s arrest in New York and his withdrawal from the race. Hollande out-manoeuvred his rivals, positioned himself as the new frontrunner and quickly surpassed Sarkozy in the polls – a position he never lost.

SIXTH. HOLLANDE'S STRONG CAMPAIGN

Indiscipline and fratricide in the officer corps have damaged the Socialist Party’s electoral chances in the past. Not this time. The Hollande campaign was professional, reactive and well run. It used technology well, built everything around the candidate’s strengths and managed to unite the higher echelons of the party behind it. The socialists seemed hungrier for the win. The manifesto was carefully calibrated to appeal just enough to the far left and the centre, and it caught the public mood. There was a little audacity too: when Hollande announced his 75 per cent tax rate on incomes over €1 million, it looked like a big risk.

As a tactic, it turned out to be a masterstroke. People talked about nothing else for two weeks, and it left Sarkozy damned however he responded. If he agreed, he was taking a lead from his opponent. If he demurred, he was fulfilling the portrayal of him as “the president of the rich”.

SEVENTH...AND SARKOZY'S POOR ONE

Sarkozy hoped to leave it until the last minute to enter the campaign, but Hollande’s strong performance and bleak opinion polls forced him to change plan. This left the campaign looking improvised, and the impression held. Sarkozy’s ideas never took hold, and his need to speak to different audiences made him look opportunistic and incoherent: halal meat and tighter border controls one day, attacks on unions and calls for fiscal prudence the next. The further to the right he moved, the more centrists he lost.

Equal-time broadcasting rules worked against Sarkozy, pitching him against nine first-round opponents who spent their time bashing his record. When Hollande pushed Sarkozy into second place on April 22nd, the contest was as good as over.

EIGHTH. THE DEBATE

Not the three-hour televised duel between Hollande and Sarkozy itself, but what it revealed about the campaign. In the beginning, Hollande’s appeal lay principally in the fact that he was the antithesis of Sarkozy (calm and unifying, where the president was impetuous and divisive).

Gradually, he managed to cultivate a statesman’s aura of his own, and this was confirmed in the show of controlled aggression and authority that saw him through the TV duel against one of the best debaters in French politics. Once Hollande had proven that being the anti-Sarkozy was not the sum of his appeal, he was over the line.