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.
Thierry Vedel, a researcher at the Political Science Institute in Paris, suggested Sarkozy might have decided on the gamble with Merkel as a way to seduce voters from the center or even Socialists eager to see closer integration within the E.U. “He wants to show he plays in the big leagues,” Vedel added, recalling a similar stunt with President Obama during November’s Group of 20 meeting, “to show people that he is pals with the world’s big shots.”
Another Sarkozy tactic was to delay the formal candidacy announcement, repeatedly saying that he was too busy protecting the French people from economic harm to go around campaigning. To a surprising degree, political figures and journalists played along with the false suspense, calling him a “probable” candidate even as he assembled his team, rented campaign headquarters and made stump speeches around the country.
But Hollande, campaigning for almost a year, has built up a clear and steady lead in opinion polls. The latest, a survey released Tuesday by Ifop-Fiducial for Paris Match magazine, showed Hollande with 30 percent and Sarkozy with 25 percent in the first round and Holland with an overwhelming 57.5 percent to Sarkozy’s 42.5 percent in the runoff round.
Hollande, as a Socialist, has benefited from the traditional French reflex to look to the government for help in hard times. Although he has been careful to remind people that the country is in dire straits, he has emphasized renewing economic growth as the best way to fight unemployment and has promised to tax the wealthy more heavily as a way to pay for preserving welfare benefits for the poor.
But according to polls, he also has drawn support from his pleasant personality and unthreatening appearance. Short and stocky, constantly smiling and cracking jokes, he contrasts clearly with the sharp-featured and staccato Sarkozy, who approaches problems as combat to be waged against his adversaries.
In an attempt to overcome the handicap imposed by his economic record, Sarkozy last week published a Q&A in the right-wing Figaro magazine emphasizing traditional conservative values. He opposes euthanasia and same-sex marriage, he declared, wants to reform the French education system yet again and proposes referendums on immigration quotas and unemployment benefits.
His interior minister and political lieutenant, Claude Gueant, further stirred conservative souls with a declaration that France’s traditional civilization, with its emphasis on human rights, is better than certain other civilizations. Although he did not say which civilizations were lesser, Hollande supporters protested that he had African immigrants in mind.
Sarkozy complained that his Figaro magazine proposals had been misunderstood and that Gueant’s civilization comments were taken out of context. But the message was clear to France’s conservative voters, Sarkozy’s bedrock support, and perhaps as well to some extreme right voters who otherwise would support Marine Le Pen of the ultra-nationalist National Front.