The vote hangs mainly on a judgment by France’s 43 million eligible voters on who can best manage the economic tempest that has battered the country for nearly four years. The slowdown began with the Wall Street turmoil in 2008. After a short-lived recovery, it intensified sharply last summer, with merciless budget-cutting made necessary by a debt overload that is debilitating France and many others in the 27-nation European Union.
Sarkozy said he decided to run for a second five-year term mainly because France needs his steady hand at the helm as it navigates through the crisis. Stepping down now, he said, “would be like abandoning my post.”
Aside from the crisis, Sarkozy’s first term has been marked by improved ties with the United States, including a return to NATO’s integrated military command, and close cooperation with NATO forces in Afghanistan and Libya. Hollande has vowed to bring French troops home from Afghanistan immediately if elected — a year earlier than Sarkozy plans — but would not be expected to change France’s basic orientations in Europe or the world.
Against that background, the economic slowdown and how to reverse it are French voters’ main worries — and Sarkozy’s main handicap as he heads into the next three months. As a result of the need to cut back deficits, the French economy under his stewardship has ground to a halt, and unemployment has shot up to nearly 10 percent.
As he did Wednesday evening, Sarkozy often has portrayed himself as the experienced hand in stormy times, suggesting that it would be adventurous to change leaders now, with the euro, the common currency of 17 E.U. nations, in danger of spinning apart. In particular, his lieutenants have pointed out, Hollande has limited executive experience, never having been a minister despite a long career in politics.
To drive home the point, Sarkozy recruited the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to support his reelection on the basis of their work together in the E.U. debt crisis. The two appeared together in a joint news conference last week in which the German leader — regarded as Europe’s most serious figure — said Sarkozy was the best choice for French voters.
The unusual appeal to Merkel was a gamble, French commentators said. On the one hand, many French voters have heard from their elders horror stories about Germany’s military occupation in World War II. On the other, Germany has since then come to represent efficiency and economic good sense, meaning Merkel’s endorsement might make Sarkozy look inevitable to voters desperate to see their country pull out of the crisis.