Sarkozy's challenge


‘YES, I am a candidate.” With those words, French president Nicolas Sarkozy brought the long phoney war to an end last week and formally began his campaign for re-election.

Incumbency normally confers advantage – only once in the history of the current French republic have voters denied a sitting president a second term – but Sarkozy has a huge battle on his hands to avoid suffering the same fate as Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1981.

He completes his five-year term as one of France’s least popular presidents, his ministers openly conceding he has lost the affection of the public. On his watch, economic growth has stalled, the public deficit has doubled and unemployment has risen to a 12-year peak of 9.3 per cent. As Sarkozy points out, his presidency coincided with major global crises, but the rejection of serving governments in Ireland, Spain, the UK and Portugal shows how unreceptive voters are to that defence.

Sarkozy’s announcement should bring him a poll bounce in the coming days, but closing the gap that separates him from the socialist frontrunner François Hollande will take an immense effort. Sarkozy’s successful strategy in 2007 hinged on winning over the soft National Front vote with a tough line on crime and immigration. His first policy announcements last week – rejection of gay marriage and euthanasia, endorsement of immigration restrictions and a referendum to force the unemployed to accept their first job or training offer – suggest he hopes to pull off the same trick this time. But whereas the watchword in 2007 was la rupture, the message this time will be of retrenchment and consolidation.

Significant differences separate Hollande and Sarkozy – including on European policy, where the socialist wants to renegotiate the fiscal treaty and renew France’s campaign for a more activist European Central Bank. That means all of Europe, not least Ireland, has a stake in France’s election. But character, not policy, has been the key to Sarkozy’s rise and fall.

He embodied la rupturein 2007, but his personality and behaviour were the chief causes of the early collapse in his popularity. Now his challenge is to persuade the French that they can dislike him and still believe he is the strongest candidate. The election is the socialists’ to lose, but their lead will count for nothing unless they can marry the popular rejection of Sarkozy with a compelling case for Hollande and his own vision for France.