The High Theater of France's Presidential Election

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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."

A little while later, Sarkozy called one of Fabius's economic views an example of hypocritical "tartufferie." Recoiling in grave, scholarly fashion, Fabius proceeded to explain that the president had misunderstood the term. "You don't need to explain," responded the president, "I too read Molière, you don't need to go to the ENA for that." It was prime-time exegesis of a seventeenth-century playwright--something that only happens in France.

The Domestic Sideshow

Perhaps the theatrical character of the campaign has been so prominent because the substance has been so remarkably thin. To be sure, the major candidates have made policy pledges, even ambitious ones. François Hollande has promised to raise the tax rate on millionaires to 75 percent, going even beyond what the communist candidate promised in this respect. For his part, Sarkozy has promised to reduce the French budget deficit (currently around 5 percent) to zero within four years.

Both of these proposals would be dead in the water the minute the electoral campaign is over. A serious proposal to tax top earners at 75 percent would stoke capital flight and create jitters in the market, and French investors have shrugged off the idea. Meanwhile, the French market index CAC has been on something of a hot streak, hardly portending fears of widespread redistribution. And while Sarkozy has indeed been serious about deficit reduction while in office, the attempt to reduce it to zero within that timeframe would demand a kind of public-benefits rollback that no French president who values civic comity would likely try.

This is not to say there are not significant differences between the candidates. On social issues, Sarkozy might indeed consider changes that Hollande would surely prefer to bypass, such as reducing the number of immigrants each year from 150,000 to 75,000. On the economic front, Sarkozy surely wishes to spend less and continue reforming France's system of public benefits and energy-sapping regulatory culture: "work more to earn more" has been a favored line. Hollande, by contrast, dreams of Mitterand-style grand public projects, many thousands of new public jobs, and an end to austerity.

But beyond any domestic constraints, both of these agendas remain captive to something bigger--the European project, which neither major candidate intends to seriously question. So much of what happens in France over the next five years depends on external affairs: German politics, decisions of the European Central Bank, not to mention investor opinion on Greece, Italy and the other southern economies. France can play a role in all these areas--and it matters a great deal who will represent France on the world stage--but she can master none of them herself. Domestic-policy agendas will necessarily give way to the bigger pan-European issues at play. A proud sort, this is not something the French have been willing to admit. All presidential candidates have tried to persuade the French electorate that the presidential drama is not in fact a Hamlet without the king.

This article originally appeared at The National Interest, an Atlantic partner site. Follow @TheNatlInterest on Twitter.

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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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