As he faced thousands of flag-waving supporters in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, Nicolas Sarkozy cast an old-fashioned presidential image, and matched the appearance with frequent references to General Charles de Gaulle, founder of both the modern French republic and of Mr. Sarkozy’s conservative party.
In reality, though, Mr. Sarkozy was fighting desperately for control of the presidency in the final moments of an election that has gone terribly awry. His televised hour-long speech on May Day, a national holiday, was one of his few remaining chances to regain the lead, along with a televised debate on Wednesday night.
Still falling several percentage points behind Socialist Party Leader François Hollande, Mr. Sarkozy was drawing on one of the few resources he commands – fear – to persuade people to vote for him.
Fear, first of all, of outsiders: Mr. Sarkozy used the speech to echo some of the rhetoric of extreme-right leader Marine Le Pen, whose anti-immigrant National Front captured 18 per cent of the vote in first-round elections. Now that it’s narrowed to a two-way race, the President is hoping to draw some of her voters into his fold.
In this case, he reiterated his promise to bring back passport checks and border crossings, which Europe has not had for 15 years. And he suggested, darkly, that this was needed because of an existential threat: “We don’t need to close our border entirely,” he said to loud cheers, “but we want to defend a European civilization.”
Ms. Le Pen, no longer a candidate but still campaigning against the establishment, refused to indulge Mr. Sarkozy. That morning she had addressed a smaller rally of her supporters in front of the ornate Paris Opera and denounced both Mr. Hollande and, even more loudly, Mr. Sarkozy. Her speech, heavy on anti-globalization, anti-free-market and anti-European Union themes popular with her working-class supporters, invoked Joan of Arc as its role model.
She said she would cast a blank ballot in Sunday’s second-round election, but told her supporters to vote their consciences. Polls suggest a third of them won’t vote, and as many as a third of the remainder plan to back Mr. Hollande, whose anti-globalization message is similar to hers.
And this was the other fear that Mr. Sarkozy drew upon: the middle-class sense of alarm at the somewhat old-fashioned centre-left message being delivered by Mr. Hollande.
The Socialist Party Leader used a speech in Burgundy on Tuesday to outline that message. If Mr. Sarkozy couldn’t stop mentioning Gen. de Gaulle, Mr. Hollande seemed determined to evoke François Mitterrand, the only Socialist president of postwar France. He governed for 14 years beginning in 1981 and was known for the nationalization of industries including banks, a retirement age lowered to 60 and lavish state programs.
Rather than casting himself as a reformer, Mr. Hollande promised a near-literal return to what he called “the beautiful victory” of Mr. Mitterrand, his political mentor. “I gave myself an objective,” he told the crowd. “To be the second president from Corrèze [the first president from that south-central French town was Mr. Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac]and finally to be the successor to François Mitterrand.”
Mr. Hollande’s promises – to defend social services, rigid job-protection laws and pensions in the face of a fiscal crisis, to increase taxes on the wealthy, and to renegotiate the Franco-German euro bailout scheme on the basis of growth – were not all that different from the policies of most recent conservative French presidents.
But Mr. Sarkozy cast them in a dim light, warning that they could result in France becoming a Spain or a Greece. He called for a new, business-friendly economic model: “A new French model where success is not regarded with suspicion, one based on merit and talent.”
This was almost exactly the campaign message that Mr. Sarkozy had delivered in 2007 – and, tellingly, his speech did not include the laundry list of accomplishments that an incumbent with five years in office might be expected to lay out in a re-election campaign. There was almost no mention of his policy accomplishments – in good part because French voters are furious with the failed economic growth, rising unemployment and spiralling debt that have marked Mr. Sarkozy’s tenure.
It now appears that Mr. Sarkozy’s strategy is to replace that anger with fear – to make voters hesitate at the prospect of a “France that flies the red flag instead of the Tricolour,” as he repeatedly said Tuesday. He now has a few days, a sequence of rallies and one crucial debate, to make that strategy work.
Editor's note: Right-wing leader Marine Le Pen mentioned Joan of Arc as a role model. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier online version of this story. This version has been corrected.