2012 is shaping up to be a bumper year for Presidential politics.
While the GOP candidates fight it out for their party’s nomination on this side of the Atlantic, the race to become France’s next President is just beginning to heat up.
As in the United States, the campaign appears to present two competing views of what society ought to be – lining up neatly along the traditional philosophies of Left and Right.
In one corner, there is the pro-business, Nicolas Sarkozy – the current office holder. He came to power in 2007, riding a wave of renewed optimism and promising to rewrite France’s social contract. Almost from the start, his tenure has been dogged by personal and political controversy – from his much-publicized romance with Carli Bruni, to the dealings of his close associates with L’Oreal heiress, Lilianne Bettencourt.
However, perhaps more than any other external factor, it may be Mr. Sarkozy’s actual record in office which ultimately ends his hopes of a second stint in the Palais de l’Élysée. Campaigning on a radical fiscal agenda, the President has found himself in office during one the worst financial crises in European history. His plans to overhaul the French economy have had to take a backseat as fiscal stability becomes the order of the day. While Mr. Sarkozy has won plaudits from many foreign observers for his handling of the crisis, he nevertheless continues to suffer criticism at home where many believe he has done too little to realize the promises which helped to elect him in 2007.
His main opponent is Francois Hollande. A former Secretary of the Socialist Party, Mr. Hollande was the long-term partner of Segolene Royal, who Mr. Sarkozy defeated in the 2007 election. It is widely believed that Mr. Hollande had actually intended to run five years ago, but was punished by Ms. Royal when she discovered that he had had an affair with a French journalist.
Mr. Hollande’s greatest asset in the election is likely to be the President’s unpopularity. His own profile among the French electorate is significantly lower than Ms. Royal’s was at this time in 2007. He also suffers from a lack of charisma, and has been roundly criticized for failing to get his campaign off the ground after his nomination in late 2011.
Perhaps most critically, however, Mr. Hollande may have to overcome two surprising obstacles which, were it any other country, may indeed be seen as relative strengths. First, like Ms. Royal, he is an “Enarque” – a graduate of the prestigious “Ecole Nationale d’Administration” which has turned out an astounding percentage of France’s leaders for the last fifty years. Mr. Sarkozy’s election in 2007 (where he very publicly lauded his lack of educational credentials) appeared to signal a move away from the old order. It is will be interesting to see whether, five years on, the public is willing to once again embrace an institution which has previously proven so divisive.
Secondly, Mr. Hollande was a senior player in the socialist party during the leftist government of Lionel Jospin (1997-2002). A central question will be whether Mr. Sarkozy can link Mr. Hollande to some of the more controversial policies of that era, including the thirty-five hour working week, which were so overwhelmingly rejected in 2007.