President Nicolas Sarkozy is clearly preferable to the Socialist François Hollande, in the second round of the French presidential election on May 6, although neither of the two leading candidates has initiated a serious debate about the issues that face France. Mr. Hollande was only slightly ahead of Mr. Sarkozy on the first round, and there is no real front-runner.
In Mr. Sarkozy’s first presidential campaign five years ago, he undertook to make France less of a welfare-state economy and to make labour markets more flexible – and hence to be more open to employing young people. His progress on this has been meagre, but at least he adheres in principle to economic liberalism (with a dose of Gaullist nationalism).
The financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent euro-zone crisis have begotten a great deal of anxiety in France. The right-wing demagoguery of Marine Le Pen of the Front National and the left-wing demagoguery of Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Front de Gauche, though these two candidates have now been eliminated, found some very receptive audiences and have left their mark on the next stage – while the voice of the sober centrist candidate, François Bayrou of the Mouvement Démocrate, has been almost drowned out.
Mr. Hollande, despite his own cautious, bureaucratic character, has evidently felt himself compelled to echo the demagogues. Last week, for example, he said in a speech, “The French are a free people, who will not allow their future to be determined by the pressure of markets or finance.”
Both Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande have flirted with euroskeptic nationalism, but at least the incumbent President has demonstrated his willingness and ability to work constructively and closely in the European Union with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor (though they initially found each other’s personalities uncongenial).
France is in a far better condition than Greece or Portugal, but in the long run the French social-democratic welfare state is not sustainable. President Sarkozy offers a greater prospect of facing his country’s problems than Mr. Hollande, his Socialist rival.