Wednesday brought about the most anticlimactic and anticipated political moment of this year. A visibly-aged President Nicolas Sarkozy confirmed on French television that: "Yes, I am a candidate for the presidential election."
With his announcement came the official start to an election some are already chalking up as a loss for incumbent Sarkozy. Nevertheless, undeterred by disapproval ratings of 68% and polls putting him 14 points behind his Socialist rival, Sarkozy announced the central theme of his campaign: “Une France Forte” (A strong France). The president’s vision is for France to return to traditional values of work, responsibility and authority, harking back to times of economic prosperity and security.
However, beyond the shiny but ultimately vacuous slogans, the key question is: Can Sarkozy actually win?
Many French commentators have been penning Sarkozy’s political obituary for at least a year, assuming he could never overcome the great unpopularity his political and social agenda have generated. Furthermore, the Elysée soap opera, involving the acrimonious divorce of his second wife and subsequent, highly bizarre, marriage to Italian model-singer-songwriter Carla Bruni, have done nothing to endear him to a French people used to presidents such as the refined and elegant Jacques Chirac. In comparison, Sarkozy acts like a newly-minted Russian oligarch, with a beautiful foreign wife; a noted taste for "bling" accessories; luxurious presidential jets take him on expensive summer holidays; and he has increased the presidential expenditure and household. Such is not the way of a traditional French president, especially at a time of austérité, but the way of a nouveau-riche parvenu; a definite Achilles heel.
Yet Sarkozy, the most astute politician of our age, knows these weaknesses. But, he also knows that he can win by appealing to far-right voters.
Indeed, a sizeable section of the French electorate are worried about increased immigration, fewer jobs, and dilution of French culture. But these issues are seldom discussed in the political arena. Therefore Sarkozy’s election plan is to emphasize that he is the man to tackle these problems. Referencing himself as a modern Charles de Gaulle, he will showcase his time in office as that of a strong president, and one much respected a abroad; a statesman held high regard, who has consistently succeeded to rebuild France’s international standing. By basing himself on these qualities, Sarkozy will endeavour to paint his socialist rival as weak, inexperienced and clueless, dangerous to France and French values.
This portrayal will appeal to voters from the far-right. Sarkozy has already started to woo them with promises to completely reform the immigration system, curb welfare benefits and tackle "encroachment" on French values and culture. Unless Sarkozy wins support from the far-right and gets a healthy percentage of such voters, then the electoral math means he cannot win. Consequently, the only way to win them is by fundamentally orientating his campaign from progressive to regressive in nature, using dog-whistle politics and emotional single-issues as a wedge to prop up his support. The result will be a highly aggressive and deeply unpleasant campaign season, with very personal attacks.
Nicolas Sarkozy, though, has never shied away from a dirty fight and it is something this political-animal will relish.
So, can he still win a second-term?
The answer is: yes. But the cost will be appealing the far-right, with deep future repercussions for France as a nation and society. It also raises the question of whether politics should be about appealing to the lowest common denominator to gain votes and win. Sarkozy thinks so, but does the rest of France agree?
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