WARSAW — The late British Prime Minister Harold Wilson used to quip that “a week is a long time in politics.” In the 30 or so weeks between now and the next French presidential election, any prediction made today could be reversed, and reversed again, before the vote.
But two candidates have emerged as clear and constant favorites in opinion polls: Nicolas Sarkozy on the right and Segolene Royal on the left. In fact, they have more in common than meets the eye, for each speaks of a rupture with the past while incarnating a form of continuity.
For Sarkozy, “rupture” reflects both mundanely tactical and deeply personal choices. The 12 years of Jacques Chirac’s presidency, together with France’s tradition of alternation in power, suggests a victory for the left. Positioning himself as the candidate who represents a sharp break with today’s unpopular politics is the only means to escape that fate. This is reflected in Sarkozy’s openly pro-American stance — an act of political courage in a France where anti-Americanism is running high.
Sarkozy’s message is that Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin were right in substance to oppose America’s military adventure in Iraq, but that their style was disastrously wrong.
Thus, his deep admiration for “American values,” while sincere, implies no embrace of President George W. Bush. It also reassures the French business community, which was shocked by Villepin’s flamboyant opposition to the United States when he was Chirac’s foreign minister.
At home, Sarkozy has aimed his message particularly at the young, issuing a patriotic call to the values of work and discipline, a counterrevolutionary revolution. The revolution that must be overcome is that of May 1968, whose leaders and supporters, according to Sarkozy, may have lost politically to Charles de Gaulle, but deeply weakened France over the succeeding decades with their emphasis on “false values.”
By contrast, rebelling against one’s parents’ generation and rediscovering traditional moral stances will save France — a message that is highly applicable to issues, such as education and immigration, that may dominate the electoral campaign.
In the case of Royal, the meaning of “rupture” is both more obvious and more visible. She is seeking to become the first woman president of the French Republic. To achieve her goal, she prefers to emphasize her “essence,” thereby countering Sarkozy’s stress on his record as a “doer.”
Royal’s appeal to voters is simple: “I am a woman, and you have never tried a woman, so be modern and try one now.”
Hiding behind the originality (in French presidential politics) of her gender, Royal has avoided specifying a detailed program. When challenged by inquisitive journalists demanding greater precision about her policy agenda, her highly effective line of defense (so far!) has been: “You would not dare to ask me such a question if I were not a woman!”
Thus, Royal’s program is her popularity. In foreign policy, one can only guess what her priorities would be.
As far as Europe is concerned, she seems as “agnostic” as Sarkozy, who, like her, incarnates a new generation of “post-European” leaders. In terms of values, Royal, too, seems to represent a rupture with May 1968, with her emphasis on discipline and family.
According to public opinion polls, Royal is the clear favorite of the left and the only candidate able to defeat Sarkozy. Her support is particularly strong among women voters. For the Socialist Party, which is eager to return to power but has not yet recovered from the humiliating defeat of Lionel Jospin in the first round of the presidential election in 2002, the question is whether it can afford to resist the wave of favorable public opinion behind Royal.
In the opinion of Royal’s many opponents among Socialist leaders and militants, the dominance of the media in the political process is leading to mediocrity: The qualities required to be elected are becoming nearly incompatible with those needed to govern.
According to Royal’s Socialist critics, the “Hollywoodization” of politics from which she benefits entails a new approach in which leaders follow and followers lead. But the same criticism can be directed at Sarkozy.
Moreover, both candidates embody continuity — with Chirac’s Gaullist side for Sarkozy and with Francois Mitterrand for Royal — as much as rupture. Royal openly claims Mitterand’s legacy as she searches for legitimacy, while Sarkozy’s rejection of Chirac’s legacy has more to do with form than substance.
To a large extent, Sarkozy can be seen as Chirac with more, whereas Royal is clearly Mitterrand with less.
When the voters decide in the spring of 2007, their choice may depend more on negative than positive considerations, as it did in 2002, when Chirac faced the odious nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second round.
As in 2002, the winner next year will be whomever the electorate dislikes or fears less. One way or the other, personalities will prevail over programs.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.