With Europe in the grip of a punishing debt crisis, Hollande and his Socialists would have little margin for abrupt change should he replace Sarkozy’s conservative government in the two-round vote April 27 and May 6. But a Sarkozy defeat after only one five-year term would mark an unusual reversal for a politician who promised “rupture” in the way France does business and, with relentless energy, has propelled himself to prominence on the European stage.
The opening for Hollande’s unexpected challenge came in the disgrace of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the International Monetary Fund chief who was considered an easy winner for the Socialist Party nomination until he was accused in May of sexually assaulting a cleaning woman at a New York hotel. The charges were dropped when prosecutors judged the woman unreliable. But other sex-related accusations against Strauss-Kahn have since arisen in France, and the onetime luminary has vanished from the political stage.
As a political rally here last week demonstrated, however, Hollande has developed his own following in months of tireless campaigning, during which he has pledged to soften the impact of the debt crisis on France’s poor and unemployed and has attacked Sarkozy as a heartless friend of the rich, accusing him of failing to carry out his 2007 promise to allow French workers to “work more and earn more.”
“The president of unkept promises cannot now be the candidate of new proposals,” Hollande shouted, his voice hoarse from a day of speechmaking, street walkabouts and a visit to a dairy farm.
France cannot reduce its debt by cutting into unemployment benefits and health-care budgets, he declared, but must instead impose higher taxes on capital gains and close loopholes that allow the rich to pay smaller proportions of their incomes than wage-earners. In addition, he said to raucous applause, the government must step in to cap the compensation and retirement packages of senior executives, which he noted seem to rise annually despite the financial crisis.
“Francois, president, Francois, president,” chanted about 1,300 banner-waving supporters who jammed the convention center in this western city celebrated for its 24-hour automobile race.
When Hollande’s hour-long speech wound to a close and the crowd intoned the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” the candidate raised his arms in salute and moved to the front of the stage to bask in what appeared to be perfect contentment over the noisy display of support.
Rising from obscurity
At almost the same time, Sarkozy was in the northern city of Lille, making a loudly applauded campaign appearance of his own. Hollande, he charged, is lying to the French people, making promises that cannot be kept while France struggles to lower its perennial deficits and using sleight of hand to conceal the real numbers for what he proposes.