French president facing uphill struggle to offset 'affection deficit' disorder among voters


THE FRENCH presidential race has a 14th candidate. As of Wednesday evening, when he completed the ritual that decrees sitting presidents must gravely announce their bid for re-election to the nation, Nicolas Sarkozy formally entered the fight of his life.

Sarkozy’s candidacy had never been in doubt, but he had wanted to leave it until early March to declare, allowing him to stand aloof from the fray and burnish his statesman’s credentials for as long as possible. The date was brought forward amid concerns in his UMP party over the president’s static poll ratings and the momentum being generated by his chief rival, the socialist François Hollande.

With the first round of voting to take place on April 22nd, the latest Ifop poll shows Hollande in the lead with 30 per cent, Sarkozy on 25.5 per cent and the National Front leader Marine Le Pen in third place on 17.5 per cent.

Those figures have barely shifted since the turn of the year. Worse still for Sarkozy, his socialist rival emerges as a clear winner in a hypothetical play-off between the pair.

Although the campaign proper has yet to begin, the socialists have energised their supporters by running a slick, united and electorally savvy operation so far.

Hollande’s manifesto pulled off the trick of speaking to left-wing supporters he must rally for the first round without leaving himself too exposed – on issues such as the public deficit or immigration, for example – to attacks from the right.

“If Sarkozy were to win this, it would be an extraordinary feat,” a socialist former minister told me. By any measure, the challenge looks colossal. The president’s disapproval ratings are at 68 per cent, making him twice as unpopular as the incumbents François Mitterrand (1988) and Jacques Chirac (2002) at the same point in the electoral cycles before they were re-elected.

His successes as president, such as his leadership during the 2008 financial crisis, the Libyan uprising or the G20 presidency have brought him scant domestic reward. Moreover, the failures – even deeply rooted ones such as chronic unemployment and relative economic decline – have been hard to shake off.

Nearly every election involving an incumbent is described as a referendum on the incumbent. But in this case it has a more meaningful ring to it than usual. Sarkozy’s character will be central to both sides’ messaging this spring. It was a vital factor in his 2007 win – he embodied the go-getting, mould-breaking rupture he promised France – but also to the subsequent collapse in his popularity.

Sarkozy’s first two years in power are remembered in France not for a successful EU presidency or the Georgian war but for the insights Sarkozy gave the public into his exhibitionist soap opera life. There was the election night party he held for rich celebrity friends in an expensive Paris restaurant, the post-election holiday on his millionaire friend’s yacht, the attempt to give his student son a plum job, the public romance, or the time he told a man in a crowd to “get lost, prick.” The French people didn’t like what they saw.

Sarkozy’s ratings plummeted during those first two years and have never recovered. Today, government ministers openly concede that he is widely disliked – or, as interior minister Claude Guéant put it, that he has an “affection deficit”.

The challenge for Sarkozy’s campaign is how it deals with this. The first step was to “re-presidentialise” Sarkozy by giving him a more stand-offish, statesman-like aura in deference to traditional French expectations of their president, and keeping his private life in the background. He is rarely even photographed with his wife these days. A further step may be some sort of act of contrition. A book is expected to be published under Sarkozy’s name next month, which some believe will be used to express regret for his mistakes and unfulfilled promises.

But the success of the Sarkozy campaign will hinge on whether he can persuade people that they can have misgivings about his character and still see him as the best candidate. In recent days, the outline of the policy platform has become clearer – and it looks much like the 2007 model.

He has in recent days taken a tough stance against immigration, gay marriage and euthanasia, and pledged to hold a referendum to force the jobless to take their first job or training offer. Five years ago, Sarkozy’s tough “law and order” line helped him win over chunks of the “soft” National Front vote, giving him such momentum that by the time he added the right-leaning centrists in the second round, he was comfortably over the line.

He will present himself as the man with the courage to tell French people hard truths about the deficit. He will stress his experience – a useful counterpoint to Hollande, who has never served in government – and his leadership qualities. He will draw comfort where he can find it: his formidable campaigning skills, talent for debate and in the fact that he still has more than two months to turn it around.