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France's President and UMP party candidate for the 2012 French presidential elections Nicolas Sarkozy arrives at a campaign rally in Nice, southern France April 20, 2012. France goes to the polls on Sunday in the first round of its presidential election. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)
France's President and UMP party candidate for the 2012 French presidential elections Nicolas Sarkozy arrives at a campaign rally in Nice, southern France April 20, 2012. France goes to the polls on Sunday in the first round of its presidential election. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

As candidate pool narrows, French election characterized by extreme ordinariness Add to ...

In the wealthy Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, you would expect to find some enthusiasm for Sunday’s presidential election. After all, it was here that both conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy and his leading challenger, Socialist Party Leader François Hollande, spent their youth and went to high school, and where Mr. Sarkozy built his political career as mayor.

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Yet the general mood here, as in much of France, is one of disillusionment and alienation from political leaders. The excitement that brought Mr. Sarkozy to office five years ago, even the bright novelty delivered back then by his opponent (and Mr. Hollande’s ex-wife) Ségolène Royal, is utterly missing from this election.

“We were dazzled by Sarkozy in 2007, he seemed like something that was fresh and invigorating in national politics,” says Andrée Martine, a real-estate agent who runs a business club in Neuilly. “This year, I don’t know anyone who’s voting, because they really believe – even people who work closely with Sarko – it’s only a matter of choosing the least-offensive option.”

Polls show a slight lead in Sunday’s first-round election for Mr. Hollande, a long-time Socialist Party insider. That vote will narrow the 10-candidate slate down to two, almost certain to be Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande, who will then face off on May 6.

This election has become a referendum on Mr. Sarkozy – not so much on his policies, which have been modestly successful on their own terms amid a calamitous economic period, but on his character and personality.

It seems a lot more than five years since Mr. Sarkozy, a child of immigrants, exploded the staid old traditions of his Union for a Popular Movement party, founded by Charles de Gaulle, and promised to “make France work again” by opening up the economy using Margaret Thatcher-style liberalism. Five years later, he has the lowest rate of public approval (about 36 per cent) of any president since the modern French state was created in the 1950s.

The election of a French president is something like the choosing of a national father, and there is a widespread sense that Mr. Sarkozy has been a bad dad – excessively modish and flashy, too insulting to those beneath him, undignified . People remember the private jet with the $97,000 baguette oven, the BlackBerry text messages while talking to the Pope. That, and the 10 per cent unemployment rate.

“The defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy, if it does take place, is not based on rationality,” says Dominique Moïsi, head of the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. “It’s not based on a judgment of his record, but based on a rejection of his person. It’s totally emotional.”

But Mr. Hollande has failed to generate much excitement. A pleasant but not very memorable man who made his name as an adviser to the last Socialist president, François Mitterrand, he was thrust into the candidacy when the much more popular and reform-minded leading contender, former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was accused of sex crimes and forced to drop his presidential aspirations.

If Mr. Hollande continues his lead through the final vote on May 6, as polls suggest is likely, then he would become the first non-conservative president France has seen in almost two decades. Taken at his word, Mr. Hollande would be governing far to the left of any leader in Europe: He promises a repeat of the Mr. Mitterrand’s 1981 victory, which led to the nationalization of industries, including banks. He says he would raise taxes sharply and withdraw France from some European treaties.

But it is widely felt that he, like Mr. Sarkozy, has been campaigning not for the average voter, but for the supporters of the extreme fringe parties whose leaders have been the real forces of excitement in this campaign. Mr. Sarkozy used the Toulouse terrorist shootings to try to gain votes from Marine Le Pen and her far-right National Front by campaigning on a tough anti-immigration platform. This backfired: It seems voters wanted to hear about the economy, which Mr. Sarkozy barely mentioned, so his lead slipped further.

In reality, it appears that Mr. Hollande will be what he has always appeared to be: A slightly grey centre-left administrator. Indeed, the high point of his final rally, held Thursday night in Bordeaux, was his call for a “normal” president – not flashy or excessively interesting, but dully competent.

“To be a normal president is to bring the French people together,” he said. “The last five years have been marked by excess.”

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