Okay, so he’s almost there. Since he emerged as the Socialist presidential candidate last October, every single opinion poll has pointed to a clear win for François Hollande over Nicholas Sarkozy in the second and final round of the election. Sarkozy’s recent revival in the polls has fizzled out. The total left vote keeps inching up. Socialist party (PS) dirigeants have apparently been heard whispering in corners about their portfolios.
You could divine the mood in the two camps by watching the two big campaign rallies in Paris on Sunday: Sarkozy launching ever more hysterical attacks on his opponents while Hollande spoke about mobilisation – getting the vote out – and the dangers of complacency.
But the closer we get, the more PS militants will be biting their nails. There have been few funnier things in this largely mirthless campaign than the goofy, dancing puppet of Hollande on Les Guignols d’Info (for older readers, this is a French version of the now-defunct ITV satirical show Spitting Image) performing a song called Alors, On Flippe in which various Socialist bigwigs fret about throwing away another election despite a big lead in the polls. ‘When you think you’ve finally won, you get a kick up the arse,’ sings Lionel Jospin, the defeated Socialist candidate in 1995 and 2002. ‘Your career, it’s in tatters; you were already seeing yourself in the Élysée.’ (Trust me, it works better in French.)
This isn’t really fair to Hollande himself, who has shown an almost Zen-like calm throughout the campaign, which you can take as natural insouciance, complacency or confidence – perhaps a bit of all three. Despite his dominance in the polls, the 57-year-old MP for the largely rural département of Corrèze in central France (in classic French style he is also the former Mayor of Tulle and president of the Corrèze Conseil General – effectively the county council) has been accused of failing to generate the kind of excitement which brought the left to power under François Mitterrand in 1981. Hollande – who styles himself as a Monsieur Normal in contrast to Sarkozy’s President Bling-Bling – could point to polls that show he’s doing even better than Mitterrand in 1981. But he doesn’t entirely reject the criticism.
‘1981, twenty-three years of opposition! Now, ten years, that’s not bad for a start,’ he said in his big interview with Libération on 12 April. ‘I think even that’s too much. In 1981, there was a very strong hope for change, even for a complete break. In a different context, 31 years later, there is a strong hope for justice, for confidence in what democracy and public action can do… It’s my duty to carry that hope.
‘The idea of a boring campaign is as old as the presidential election itself,’ he adds, pointing out that the ‘boring’ campaigns of 1995 and 2002 both produced unexpected results (the victory of Jacques Chirac and the second place finish for the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen, respecitvely). ‘I’m not in the campaign to enjoy myself or simply to make people happy… I have a higher responsibility than that.’
One of the straws in the wind is Sarkozy’s increasing resort to ‘red-scare’ tactics, most notably his repeated claims recently that the markets will bring France to its knees within days of a Socialist victory in May. (There isn’t much evidence for this – the French markets haven’t fared significantly worse recently than their other European counterparts.)
In response, Hollande often quotes Sarkozy’s arguments back at him, before rebutting or just mocking them (he is a gifted mimic but, sadly, no longer does Sarkozy impressions after getting into trouble a few months back). Here’s Hollande last week: ‘“If the left got in, they would empty the tills.’ It’s happened. The statement has been made, including by the prime minister – the state is bankrupt. Then they tell us: “Watch out if the left get in, they will run up deficits everywhere”. It’s happened. Balance of payments deficit, 70 billion euros, social security deficit, 17 billion euros, unemployment insurance, 15 billion of accumulated deficits. They tell us: “If the left get back in, there will be insecurity everywhere.” It’s happened… In this campaign I ask myself sometimes if it’s not me who is the incumbent. Him, he’s not responsible for anything. It was his predecessors, his successor, our neighbours, never him!’
It’s become a classic Hollande tactic. Sarkozy’s habit of running against his own record makes it easy for Hollande to demolish his arguments without being too specific about his own programme.
With his largely moderate policies and extreme caution about not taking victory for granted, Hollande may look like Tony Blair before 1997, but in at least one important respect the situation is quite different: Hollande has a left flank. The firebrand Front de Gauche leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon is riding high in the polls and is attracting by far the biggest crowds to his election rallies.
Hollande doesn’t want to alienate Mélenchon’s voters. He refrains from attacking Mélenchon directly (rarely mentioning him by name in his speeches) and makes few criticisms of his rather old-fashioned left-wing programme. Instead he sticks to the impeccably Mittterandiste line from 1981, even quoting the grand old man directly in his speech on Sunday: ‘I’m the only candidate on the left who is in a position to win.’
So unlike Blair, Hollande has had to look left as well as right, recently proposing a 75% top rate of tax, controls on spiralling rents and a renegotiation of the recent European treaty limiting government spending. While Mélenchon supporters can be expected to switch en masse to Hollande in the second round, too high a score for Mélenchon could scare the horses in the run-off, by giving the impression that Hollande is somehow ‘in hoc’ to the far-left (it’s a line Sarkozy has been pedalling with enthusiasm). So ironically by turning up the left-wing rhetoric (and hence hoping to keep a lid on Mélenchon’s vote) Hollande is actually playing for the centrist votes he will need in the second round.
It’s a difficult balancing act which, so far, Hollande has performed skilfully. And with Sarkozy looking beaten, the election now looks like his to lose. Surely, nothing can go wrong? Probably not, but this is the Parti Socialiste, so just keep an eye out for that unexpected kick up the arse.