The High Theater of France's Presidential Election

Incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy takes to the airwaves in a big way.

sarkozy march23 p.jpg

Nicolas Sarkozy / Reuters

"They order this matter better in France," wrote Laurence Sterne insouciantly in A Sentimental Journey (1768). There is at least one respect in which this remains true. There is no political theater quite like a French presidential campaign.

Mercifully shorter than its American counterpart, the 2012 French campaign is just now heating up in advance of the first-round runoff on April 22. The second round, on May 5, will almost certainly pit incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy against socialist challenger François Hollande, with polls currently giving Hollande an 8 percent advantage in the runoff.

It is also unclear whether the recent spree of terror attacks on soldiers and a Jewish school in southwest France by a self-proclaimed "member of al-Qaida" will have much of an impact on the campaign. But French speaking-electorates (France and Quebec) are known to be fickle, and the race is far from over. In the weeks before the attack, Nicolas Sarkozy has succeeded in narrowing the gap with his socialist rival through a series of barn-burning speeches and combative interviews.

In the meantime, voters will be treated to various types of ecologists, Lyndon LaRouchites, workers' candidates and independents. Former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, whose career was badly damaged by a political dirty-trick scandal, is running on a national, transpartisan platform and polling around 1 percent.

Other candidates besides the two front-runners are polling in double digits. They include Marine Le Pen, of the Far Right Front National, François Bayrou, the Centrist candidate who cultivates a "gentleman-farmer" aesthetic, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the communist candidate who promises open combat on speculators and mandatory salary caps. Le Pen, running on an anti-Europe, protectionist and anti-Islam platform, is the strongest second-tier candidate, polling around 17 percent. On her initiative, the question of whether all meat sold in Paris is halal has become a subject of national controversy. (Never mind that the old Burgundy classic pork over lentils is still on the menu in Paris.) And because of La Pen, all parties have been forced to declare their opinions on immigration, with mostly disingenuous responses.

Back in the Game

Nicolas Sarkozy is widely known for his fanatical desire to control the news cycle and his taste for political combat on both ideas and character. Until recently, he has been kept on a leash by political-image consultants, who believe such conduct appears unpresidential. But it has been precisely by returning to his irascible self that Sarkozy has managed to close the gap with François Hollande.

Earlier this month, Sarkozy relaunched his campaign by appearing on France's premier political television program, a move his advisers had warned against throughout his presidency. Watched by nearly 6 million spectators, Sarkozy reminded even his opponents why he was president, demolishing one by one the line of media personalities and political opponents brought out to challenge him.

The theatrical high point of the evening was a debate between Sarkozy and the socialist Laurent Fabius, formerly prime minister under François Mitterand. Despite not holding office for twenty years, Fabius remains one of the elder statesmen of French socialism, bearing all the prestigious academic credentials (École Normale Supérieure, École Nationale d'Administration) that the incumbent president so prominently lacks. In spite of the fact that Sarkozy is president, it was a debate of the old, out-of-power establishment and the incumbent president, the upstart. "Mr. Sarkozy," said Fabius gravely, literally speaking down to the president, "you have failed, and you have, sometimes, betrayed the republican character of the office." Not wasting a moment, Sarkozy responded that Fabius was not one to give lectures, "you, after all, supported Dominique Strauss-Kahn."

Presented by

Neil Rogachevsky is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge and an ERASMUS visitor at the École Normale Supérieure, Paris.

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