Main rivals seek to broaden support a week before poll

Mon, Apr 16, 2012, 01:00

A WEEK to go before the first round of the presidential election, but to judge by the simultaneous rallies held by Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande in Paris yesterday, the frontrunners’ thoughts are already firmly fixed on the run-off.

The overriding aim in the first round is normally to shore up the base in the hope of gaining momentum before a move towards the centre ground for the two-way play-off. But if yesterday’s speeches at Place de la Concorde and the Château de Vincennes had anything in common, it was that each amounted to an explicit pitch for the widest possible audience. Sarkozy has dropped themes such immigration and crime in the past week, returning to the euro zone debt crisis and unemployment – issues that speak to a broader range of voters. At Vincennes, it was striking to note how often Hollande steered away from the Socialist Party’s traditional lexicon to laud “la nation” and Republican values, or to watch his lusty rendition of La Marseillaise. Even the events themselves – huge open-air rallies – normally only take place before a run-off.

Part of the reason for all of this is that the campaign has had remarkably little impact on the leaders’ standings in the polls. Sarkozy and Hollande are still comfortably ahead of the chasing pack, and unless the figures shift in the coming week it would be a huge upset if they weren’t to qualify for the run-off.

And yet there could hardly be a sharper contrast in mood between the two camps. Sarkozy’s support rose steadily in the polls after his declaration as a candidate in mid-February, but in the past week four polling companies have found that recovery has been petering out.

A TNS-Sofres survey of first-round voting intentions on Friday night put Hollande on 28 per cent (no change), ahead of Sarkozy on 26 per cent (-3), with the left radical Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen of the National Front jointly in third, on 16 per cent. In a run-off between Sarkozy and Hollande, the socialist would win by 56 (up 1) to 44 per cent.

Sarkozy’s recent slow-down has coincided with lower visibility, because the start of the official campaign 10 days ago has meant all candidates must be given equal time on television and radio. None of the ideas in Sarkozy’s manifesto have kicked off a public discussion, and reports of divisions over strategy in his camp have grown increasingly common.

The latest polls have led to a clear shift in Sarkozy’s rhetoric. He has begun to cast himself in the role of challenger, of unlikely underdog. He has called for national unity behind his candidacy – a preferred tactic of his predecessor Jacques Chirac – and referred to the crowd at la Concorde as “the silent majority” who would defy the polls and the Parisian elite.

In parallel, Sarkozy has sharpened his attacks on Hollande, hinting that a socialist win could spook the markets and lead France to ruin. The calls for a more activist ECB in yesterday’s speech may well have been a response to the growing popular impression, put to Sarkozy in recent interviews, that Hollande is the candidate of economic growth and stimulus.

As the festive atmosphere at Vincennes revealed, the socialists are struggling to contain their joy. They know that not a single poll in the past year has shown Hollande losing the decider on May 6th, and what his party initially feared – the rise of Mélenchon – has apparently been working to their advantage by pushing up the overall left-wing vote.

But Hollande hasn’t won it yet. Far from it. The fact that five candidates are at or above 10 per cent gives the first round a charge of uncertainty and recalls the 2002 election, when Jean-Marie Le Pen caused a sensation by coming second.

How accurately pollsters can assess his daughter’s vote in her first presidential election is an open question.

Moreover, a Sarkozy-Hollande run-off – in particular the vital two-way debate – would be a useful showcase for Sarkozy’s superior oratory and debating skills.

And then there is potentially Hollande’s biggest adversary: complacency.

Four months into a disciplined campaign, reports have begun to emerge of open jostling for cabinet positions among the socialist officer class.

In such signs can Sarkozy find hope.