5 May 2012

France wants a figurehead, not a policy maker

Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, France’s two presidential candidates, both talk of change – but what they are actually engaged in, writes Jonathan Rugman, is the business of preservation.

Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, France's two presidential candidates, both talk of change - but what they are actually engaged in, writes Jonathan Rugman, is the business of preservation.

I am on a train from Perigueux to Paris, which takes about four hours assuming we make our connection in Limoges, so this seems as good a time as any to reflect on Sunday’s presidential election. writes Channel 4 News Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Rugman.

Firstly, let’s deal with the historic bit. If Francois Hollande wins, he will be the first Socialist president since Francois Mitterrand, who was last elected in 1988.

If Hollande loses, all-consuming recrimination seems bound to follow. The Socialist candidate should have been pushing at an open door, amid rising unemployment and facing an incumbent president who is loathed at least as much as he is liked – and France’s Socialist party will have to reinvent itself.

If Nicolas Sarkozy wins, he will have defied political gravity, which has seen leaders across the continent crash and burn amid the eurozone crisis. And if he loses, he will be the first president to be denied a second term since Valery Giscard d’Estaing in 1981.

“The outcome is on a razor’s edge,” Sarkozy said on Friday. He’s counting on a “silent majority” to keep him in office, a mix of undecided, centrist and perhaps above all, far-right voters, won over at the very last minute in defiance of the opinion polls.

Policy contest

What is this contest about? On one level, policy. Both men are promising to curtail French debt and grow the economy simultaneously through a mixture of taxation and expenditure.

Hollande talks of hiring 60,000 teachers, of reducing the retirement age back down to 60, of spending billions to pump-prime the French economy in his first year.

Sarkozy has talked more and more about stemming immigration in an attempt to engage with National Front voters’ concerns.

Though he talks of change, here is a man who is, in his son’s words to me, a “traditional Socialist”. He says he will tax the very rich at 75 per cent. He strikes me as the candidate likely to change France the least, because he will above all try to preserve the power of the French state – a state which already accounts for 56 per cent of economic activity, the highest percentage in Europe.

As for Sarkozy, well, he promised to make France more competitive when he was elected five years ago this weekend. He has raised the retirement age slightly, and made it easier to opt out of the Socialists’ 35 hour working week, but he has backed off serious reform in the face of furious opposition.

In the last fortnight, Sarkozy has talked more and more about stemming immigration, in what is partly an attempt to change the subject away from the economy but mostly an attempt to engage with the concerns of 6.4 million National Front voters.

Read more: What would a Hollande presidency mean for France?

The business of preservation

So it seems to me that what we have here is a contest between two men who talk of change but who are actually engaged in the business of preservation, because though voters may not realise it, that is what many of them really want.

Sarkozy talks of fiscal austerity and of sticking to the European pact he agreed with Angela Merkel of Germany. Yet he has so far failed to tackle France’s rising debts, and with unemployment now around 10 per cent, his claim that France would be in a far worse state were he not in charge hardly sounds like a sure-fire vote-winner.

Holland has all the advantages of being able to make promises untained by his record in government.

Hollande has all the advantages of being able to make promises untainted by his record in government, because no such record exists. On Friday night, he talked of the “orientation of Europe” being at stake in this election, claiming he would “renegotiate” the fiscal pact masterminded by Merkel.

I suspect he will do no such thing. Away from the final rallies on Friday, Hollande’s campaign manager talked of “a new European compromise” and said his man had no intention of creating a crisis in relations with Chancellor Merkel over his emphasis on fiscal stimulus.

Still, Hollande will want something he can give his supporters if he wins, proof that he means what he says, and a show of strength to help his party win all-important parliamentary elections in June.

Unaffordable promises

Hollande will make his first foreign trip to Berlin if he’s victorious, where Merkel is no doubt already scoping out a plan to give him some of what he wants; perhaps European structural funds and European Investment Bank money earmarked for job creation and investment.

The risk for Hollande is that he disappoints on his promises early because France simply can’t afford them. Though there’s nothing new in that, and those promises may still win him this election.

But what has struck me most during this campaign is how the policies seem to matter far less than the person. They are not electing a prime minister here. They are choosing a figurehead, somebody who reflects the French republican ideal back at them.

Five years ago, they thought that person was Nicolas Sarkozy. Then many changed their minds, partly because of his abrasive personality and showbiz disconnectedness; partly because they took fright at the sort of Anglo-Saxon economic ideas he was proposing, and mostly, I suspect, because of the economic downturn itself.

Maybe Sarkozy is right and there will be a “surprise”, with just enough French voters sticking with the devil they know. More likely, though, is that they fall once again for the mantra of change in the somewhat unconvincing persona of Francois Hollande – the kindly uncle, the friendly bank manager, who is perhaps no more likely to bring about real change than his predecessor, unless events force change upon him.