But so far, to the surprise of many, Sarkozy has remained the challenger. After trailing in opinion polls for more than six months, in recent weeks he has barely pulled even with his main rival, Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party, for the first round of voting scheduled April 22. The same polls have steadily predicted an overwhelming Hollande victory in the two-man runoff May 6.
Neither Sarkozy nor Hollande will have maneuvering room for sweeping initiatives if elected, given the severity and longevity of Europe’s economic slump. At least at the outset of his five-year mandate, analysts agreed, the next French president will have to concentrate on creative penny-pinching to lower debilitating deficits and a dangerously high public debt that amounts to almost 90 percent of the economy.
Moreover, Hollande has built a reputation as a moderate and is not seeking a mandate to nationalize the economy, as was the case when Francois Mitterrand led the Socialists to victory in 1981. In foreign affairs, Hollande has pledged to pull French troops out of Afghanistan by the end of this year if elected, two years ahead of NATO’s schedule, but says he will abide by Sarkozy’s 2009 decision to return France to the alliance’s integrated military command.
A decisive factor in the race, specialists explained, will be which of the two top contenders can win second-round support from voters who, in long-standing French tradition, cast first-round “protest” ballots for minor candidates on the far left, far right or center and two weeks later cast “useful” second-round votes for a candidate who can actually win.
The permutations of loyalties from one round to the next are notoriously hard to predict, they warned, despite the polls consistently giving an edge to Hollande. But many voters who choose Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front in the first round are expected to swing behind Sarkozy in the second round. Similarly, most voters who opt for Jean-Luc Melenchon and his radical Leftist Front in the first round are expected to back Hollande in the second round.
That leaves a bloc of centrist voters — nearly 10 percent of the total, according to polls — who will back Francois Bayrou of the Democratic Movement in the first round. If all goes as expected, they will divide their support for the second round. The way their choice splits out between Sarkozy and Hollande on May 6 is likely to send one or the other to the Elysee Palace.