With the end of the summer holidays, the 2017 French presidential race has started. The men considered most likely to represent the left and the conservative Les Républicains (LR) are the country's last two presidents, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy.
They inspire widespread feelings of "anyone but Hollande" and "anyone but Sarkozy". Like voters in the US, the French electorate will likely be forced to choose between two unpopular candidates and Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme right-wing National Front.
Le Pen, polls indicate, is likely to defeat Hollande in the first round but lose to the LR candidate in the run-off.
Hollande's approval rating stands at an abysmal 16 per cent in a poll for the Journal du Dimanche. Although he will not declare his candidacy until December, few doubt Hollande will seek re-election.
Hollande is the first sitting French president to face the humiliation of a primary within his own camp. He is already challenged by three of his own former cabinet ministers, the ecologist Cécile Duflot and the socialist rebels, Benoit Hamon and Arnaud Montebourg. All three resigned on ideological grounds.
Hollande's prime minister, Manuel Valls, and his economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, also harbour presidential ambitions. Valls continues to play the loyal servant, giving the closing speech at what was considered a first campaign rally on Hollande's behalf in the southwestern French town of Colomiers last night. If, against all predictions, Hollande decided not to stand for re-election, Valls would be an obvious substitute.
The prime minister is increasingly popular with right-wing voters, but has no popular base on the left. He clashed with the health minister Marisol Touraine and education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, both of whom participated in the rally last night, over bans on the "burkini" swimsuit.
Typically, Hollande has refused to take a stand in the burkini controversy. But his former partner, the environment minister Ségolène Royal, has been criticised by Iranian campaigners for women’s rights for wearing a headscarf during her current visit to Iran.
Macron, who launched his own political movement called "En marche!" or "Forward" with an eye on the presidential contest last April, was called to order by Hollande in his televised Bastille Day interview.
Hollande's re-election strategy is basically to appear presidential. It is founded in part on advice from the former British prime minister Tony Blair's erstwhile "spin doctor" Alastair Campbell, who was accused with Blair of falsifying evidence Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
As recounted in a book by Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme, Le Monde correspondents who interviewed Hollande 60 times, Campbell visited Hollande at the Élysée twice last year.
Campbell drew up a 10-page document for Hollande in which he told him to “highlight his fundamental qualities as a human being and in particular his goodness and humanity”.
On the right, the former prime minister Alain Juppé has led polls since he declared his candidacy in April 2014. But Sarkozy was strengthened by unrest sparked by the reform of the labour code last spring, and by fears of jihadist attacks, particularly since the July 14th massacre in Nice.
The assumption at the Élysée is that Sarkozy will win the LR primary in November. The former president caught up with Juppé in a poll published by Le Figaro on Monday. It showed them tied at 34 per cent of votes in the first round of the LR primary.
Hollande and Juppé both base their hopes on rejection of Sarkozy. It is important to warn of “the danger represented by Sarkozy if he were allowed to come back” and to “insist on the fact that he has learned nothing from his failure and his rejection by the people”, Campbell advised Hollande.
Hollande told Davet and Lhomme that the anti-Sarkozy argument would carry weight once he started his official campaign, not before.
Juppé sounded like Hollande when he told supporters at the weekend that he wants “to reassure the French, bring them together . . . Authority is not agitation.”
Marisol Touraine called last night's pro-Hollande rally "a meeting of confidence in France. in a social Republic, a calming Republic".
Sarkozy wants to legislate a ban on burkinis; Juppé said he preferred “dialogue” with Muslims. Sarkozy accuses Juppé of “being in denial”, while Juppé criticised Sarkozy, without naming him, for “fanning the flames”.
De Gaulle comparison
But it was François Fillon, Sarkozy’s prime minister for five years and another candidate in the LR primary, who made the most virulent attack on Sarkozy.
Sarkozy compares his hoped-for comeback to the return of Gen Charles de Gaulle in 1958. “Who imagines Gen de Gaulle under investigation?” Fillon asked, reminding his audience that Sarkozy is still under formal investigation for the financing of his 2012 campaign, and for allegedly corrupting a supreme court judge.