He is without doubt the most unpopular leader that country has seen in a long time
Newspaper headlines suddenly seem bland, the airwaves have fallen strangely silent and television news is subdued — almost denuded of substance — now that campaigning for the French presidential elections has ended 48 hours before the country's 44 million-strong electorate goes to the polls on Sunday.
Opinion polls, which last placed Socialist challenger Francois Hollande a full three points ahead of the conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy (28–25), cannot be published during this brief hiatus in which undecided voters can make up their minds without pressure or influence. The candidates' posters plastered across the city have taken a beating from the rain and cold. Some have been ripped off, others vandalised — like the one of extreme right leader Marine Le Pen showing her with blackened teeth, a moustache, two pointy ears and a devil's tail.
Most capable, but…
Mr. Sarkozy, the sixth President to be elected since the present Fifth Republic was constituted in 1958, is without doubt the most unpopular leader the country has seen in a long time. A senior civil servant recently told The Hindu: “I am a centrist and I have worked very closely with the President. To my mind he is the most intelligent and capable political leader we have in France today. And yet, he has so many fatal character flaws that he exudes what I call the “Repugnance Factor” — he pushes away even those people, like myself, who are well-intentioned towards him.”
The French like their Presidents to be statesmen. After all, the President of this country enjoys almost absolute power. Having beheaded their King during the Revolution, the French, despite their talk of liberty, equality and fraternity, long for a monarch — elegant, diplomatic, autocratic even, but with a certain savoir-vivre.
De Gaulle, Francois Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac were all men of stature and culture. Never mind that Chirac had his hand in the till or that Mitterrand asked his secret services to sink the Greenpeace ship Rainbow warrior.
Giscard d'Estaing never made it to a second term. Partly because he was something of a fake Count — his aristocratic title had been bought by one of his ancestors, and partly because accepting diamonds from a black African dictator was really going a bit too far.
Compared to this elegant line-up, Mr. Sarkozy is like a street fighter who lacks the polish, the dignity and “sense of office” that the French seek in their presidents. The “Repugnance Factor” is a cocktail of several ingredients: an open contempt for others, especially his electorate, arrogance, ambition, a lack of manners and an undisguised hunger for money, power and fame. In France, it never does to show such naked ambition. Mr. Sarkozy is the man who, on the day of his election, thumbed his nose at his supporters by first privately celebrating his victory with his rich friends before going out to greet crowds who had waited long hours to cheer him. He can be vituperative and insulting and once famously started rolling up his sleeves, calling out to a fisherman who had insulted him to “come down and fight.” That, the French feel, is not presidential behaviour. And even if he has tried in recent months to efface that brattish image, the French have been unforgiving.
Mr. Hollande, on the other hand, is seen as a modest, deeply private man, a Mister Everybody, who, until recently, went about town on a scooter. He is steady and cool, in contrast to the mercurial President, and after five years of Sarkozian flamboyance, his very mediocrity has become a virtue.
No piece of cake
In all probability, Mr. Hollande will lead the pack of 10 candidates in the first round of voting on Sunday. But the run-off two Sundays later may not be a piece of cake. George Soros and other financial gurus have predicted a run on the French economy the moment the election is over, and many centrists, fearing a Hollande victory, might very well hold their noses and vote Sarkozy after all.
With eight other candidates in the fray, the first round could yet hold surprises. The other candidates are: former magistrate Eva Joly of the ecologists, the neo-revolutionary Jean-Luc Melanchon of the Left Front, Marine Le Pen of the extreme right National Front, Nathalie Arthaud of the Workers Struggle Party, Jacques Cheminade, an independent futurist, right-wing anti-European Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, centrist Francois Bayrou and Philippe Poutou of the left Anti-Capitalist Party.
With the extreme right's Ms. Le Pen and the extreme left's Mr. Melanchon crossing out each other's scores, the new kingmaker for the second round might well be the centrist candidate, Francois Bayrou, who is making his third attempt to win the presidency.
Keywords: French presidential elections