16 Apr 2012

Sarkozy's last weapon: the politics of fear

Channel 4 News Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Rugman blogs on the French presidential elections

I am in Paris, watching the final stages of a presidential election campaign dominated by France’s economic woes. The stakes, for two candidates, could not be higher.

Francois Hollande is consistently ahead in the polls and this is now his race to lose. If he does fall behind in the second and final of two voting rounds three weeks from now, he will surely send his Socialist Party into paroxysms of despair.

France will not have been led by a Socialist since Francois Mitterand,  first elected over thirty years ago. Defeat would leave the party contemplating  a “New Labour” moment for French socialism,  surely requiring a complete rethink of the frosty relationship between the free market and what is often described as the world’s most generous welfare state.

Nicolas Sarkozy, on the other hand, is trying to pull off the most unlikely of re-elections.  It is not just his brash personal style which grates with many and has earned him an approval rating of less than 40 per cent.

In the last few years the leaders of the UK, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece have all lost their jobs amid Europe’s economic downturn. It is surely this economic picture, rather than the charms of his rival, which most threaten Sarkozy’s second term.

So it seems to me the only really potent weapon left in Sarkozy the streetfighter’s toolbox is the politics of fear; paint your rival as a financially reckless big spender who will worsen the deficit and lead France to economic ruin.

So far, the tactic isn’t working. At Sarkozy’s rally in the Place de la Concorde yesterday, the scene of Louis XV1’s execution, the President adopted a tone of pleading desperation with his supporters. Despite his choice of a grand setting for a big speech, Sarkozy knows his head is on the block now and the speech merely confirmed it.

No less desperate was his decision to broadcast part of a “secure” video conference between himself and President Obama in Washington.

Foreign policy credentials seem almost completely absent from this election – a mistake, given that whomever wins may find himself at war with Iran – but this was a blatant and crude attempt to rope the leader of the free world into Sarkozy’s campaign.

I began this blog by stating that the stakes for two candidates could not be higher. But I am not sure that’s true for France as well.

I’m just not convinced that the way either man governs will be markedly different, because the problems each will inherit – rising public debt and unemployment pushing 10 percent –  will be the same.

Both are proposing higher taxes and lower spending.  Both have protectionist instincts – despite Sarkozy’s laissez faire bluster, he’s no Anglo-Saxon capitalist but a Frenchman to his core, a president who pledged to change France but who has actually dared change very little.

Those who voted for him won’t like it, but some form of austerity will be forced upon a President Hollande by unforgiving  financial markets, though that austerity will surely be far more watered down than anything  we’ve seen in the UK.

Stick with Sarkozy, and France will have the devil it knows. The devil it doesn’t know, Francois Hollande, will surely be far less radical than Sarkozy makes out. No wonder the French seem so indifferent to either candidate’s claims to be able to tackle the problems ahead; opinion polls reckon the absention rate could be up to 30 percent.

Follow @jrug on Twitter.