For whomever wakes up in the Elysée Palace on the 7th of May there will be an enormous challenge with which to contend. When Nicolas Sarkozy was elected President in 2007, he had campaigned on the idea of a break with the past. He planned to liberalise taxes, get rid of the infamous 35 hour working week, reduce bureaucracy, and spearhead education reform. The end of his five year mandate sees France with unemployment at a twelve year high of almost twelve percent and a housing crisis which, experts suggest, affects ten million people. The country’s national debt currently stands at 83% of GDP and is estimated to continue rising. To top it all off, France’s AAA credit rating was downgraded on the 13th of January, in what opposition leader François Hollande termed a judgement not of France but of its government and president.
Whilst it would be unfair to attribute this troublesome mixture of high unemployment and low growth entirely to Nicolas Sarkozy (he came into office just before the 2008 financial crisis), it is clear that, should he wish to stay in office for a second mandate, he will have to lay out a comprehensive strategy for dealing with these issues. Polls indicate that voters’ main concerns are debt, unemployment and the rising cost of living.
The two-round election will take place on the 22nd of April and the 6th of May. This leaves just over eleven weeks for candidates to lay out their policies and to persuade voters. Two pertinent statistics seem noteworthy: France’s Fifth Republic has never seen a President voted out after one term, yet at the same time polling indicates that Sarkozy is at present the most unpopular president for more than forty years. That said, history is equally against the socialists who have not elected a president for over fifteen years and, in 2002, lost to the then leader of the far-right National Front Jean-Marie Le Pen.
The most recent opinion polls of voters’ intentions carried out by French marketing firm BVA at the end of January puts socialist leader François Hollande in the lead at 34% in front of current leader Sarkozy at 25%. In third and fourth place are far-right leader Marine Le Pen (15%), and centrist leader François Bayrou (12%). If a run-off were to be held today, a second round would see Hollande voted in with a 57% majority. That said, polls are notoriously precarious and constantly changing. With Sarkozy still to confirm his intention to stand as a candidate (he has until the 16th of March to do so), he could still yet, as the Economist suggests, “pull off a last minute victory”.
Ultimately, the choice will be between Hollande’s ‘French Dream’ and Sarkozy’s call for grounded and decisive leadership. The former unveiled his vision at Le Bouget airport on the outskirts of Paris two weeks ago, hailing a new era of change based on justice, secularism and equality. In a nearly 90 minute speech he advocated creating 60,000 new posts in education, balancing the budget by 2017, reducing dependence on nuclear power, pulling out of Afghanistan, and increasing the percentage paid in the highest band of income tax to 45%. On the other side, Sarkozy is imploring voters not to take notice of “the commentators” in making their decision. The challenge he poses himself: “accelerate growth without spending a penny”.
The deciding factor will be whether Sarkozy is able to convince voters of his ability to deal with the deficit. Austere realism will play out against a new era of hope.