After weeks of teasing the French voters Nicolas Sarkozy is set to fire the starting gun on Wednesday evening. He will, as expected, be a candidate for his job.
The rest of the field is still not settled. Marine Le Pen is having trouble securing the necessary 500 signatures from elected officials. But we should assume that, one way or another, her name will be on the ballot, along with the socialist François Hollande, the Green Eva Joly, centrist François Bayrou, left socialist Jean-Luc Melenchon, Dominique de Villepin, who might best be described as “ailleurs” (elsewhere), and one or two representatives of the more exotic fauna of French political life.
The dynamics of this eclectic group are complex. Le Pen fille is doing even better than Le Pen père did last time at this early stage of the game. There is a nightmare prospect for the centre-right of a second round between her and Mr Hollande, especially if Mr Bayrou continues to eat away at Mr Sarkozy’s support base. If that happens, the Socialists will win easily, as Jacques Chirac did when Lionel Jospin failed to make the cut. That precedent makes the nightmare less likely, so the assumption remains that Mr Sarkozy and Mr Hollande will be there for the face-off.
The outcome of that confrontation is very far from certain. That can, without a shadow of doubt, be credited to Nafissatou Diallo. The polls are as clear as they can be that if Dominique Strauss-Kahn had stood in the Socialist interest he would have won easily. The observation is the starting point for many conspiracy theories, but they are unlikely to play an important part in the campaign.
It means, though, that Mr Hollande carries a burden. He is known to be the party’s second choice, and would have stood aside had Mr Strauss-Kahn been available. He has never been elected to a significant political office. Ségolène Royal, his former partner, seemed likely to be another sort of burden, but she has now decided to campaign, even though she refers to the father of her three children through gritted teeth as “le candidat”. Angela Merkel seems likely to be a more enthusiastic supporter of the rear half of the Merkozy horse which has kicked its European partners into line at a succession of summits over the past year.
Nonetheless, Mr Hollande’s hand contains three important trump cards. His ace is that recent elections across Europe suggest that voters are in the mood to kick incumbents out, whatever their political colour. There has been regime change in Spain, the UK, Ireland, Portugal, Hungary, indeed wherever you look except Belarus. The Socialists have clean hands. Their own policy proposals, shall we say, need some further elaboration, but that may count for little if the French economy continues to soften.
That is Mr Hollande’s second trump. Mr Sarkozy unwisely made the maintenance of France’s triple A rating a policy goal – an odd decision for someone who simultaneously reviles the rating agencies for their inconsistency and general boneheadedness. More importantly, the eurozone crisis has exposed weaknesses in the French economy. In the first decade of the euro, France competed well with Germany. Their growth rates were similar, and France’s hourly productivity is higher than united Germany’s. But, although the last quarter’s figures were better, a worrying divergence has opened up recently, evidenced by a rapidly deteriorating current account balance. French unemployment is rising as Germany’s falls. The back legs of the pantomime horse are struggling to keep up.
The third trump is one whose value is still to be determined, and may settle the outcome. It is the personality of Mr Sarkozy himself. Even those French voters who respect their president for his energy, intelligence and ambition, and who are reluctant to vote for the left, exhibit little affection for him. There are signs that he is well aware of this problem, but struggles to respond effectively.
A feature of the phoney war of the last two months has been a series of revelations from off-the-record briefings Mr Sarkozy has given. They have appeared under the (to me) mysterious rubric “le ‘best of’ du off” in the Nouvel Observateur and elsewhere. (These days my English isn’t really good enough to enable me to work in France).
Mr Sarkozy confides that he made mistakes in his early years. His private life was too flashy and preoccupying. He thinks he gave the French people the impression that he had “abandoned them”. Whether voters of the middling sort in Lyon or Lille would put it quite that way is moot. French presidents tend to exaggerate the emotional connection they establish with their citoyens. Nonetheless, it is the case that Mr Sarkozy has never quite been accepted as presidential. Cheap shots about built-up shoes, which the French largely disregard are beside the point. But the affection and respect that has carried most fifth republic presidents into a second term is not in evidence.
Although he has made something of a recovery in the polls, and the official launch of the campaign will probably produce a further bounce, the polls are now against him. Whatever the outcome of the crisis in Greece, it is hard to see the economic news flow favouring incumbency in the next three months. So the campaign is Mr Hollande’s to lose. But his policy efforts so far suggest he could just manage that feat. He plans to renegotiate the new European treaty, which is highly unlikely to be possible, and wants the European Central Bank to lend directly to Greece, which it is legally unable to do. The presidential debates, in which he will have to clarify his views on the economy, and on Europe, may well be decisive.
The writer is a professor at the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) in Paris.