French Election: Four Ways Nicolas Sarkozy Got Screwed

The French president survived Sunday’s vote. But to win the runoff next month, he’ll have to stop running against himself.

Eric Feferberg, Pool / AP Photo

The president of France is in deep trouble, and he’d like to have his countrymen think they are, too, if they don’t reelect him. When polls closed Sunday in the first round of balloting to decide whether to give Nicolas Sarkozy another five-year term or simply to be rid of him, returns showed he will make it into the decisive runoff on May 6 against Socialist candidate François Hollande. But the most recent opinion polls show that Sarkozy will lose that mano a mano matchup by a landslide.

If Sunday night’s results give Sarkozy some encouragement, that’s mainly because his outlook has been so bleak. He will be the first sitting president in the Fifth Republic who failed to take first place in the first round of voting. But according to the official numbers released early this morning the margin by which Sarkozy lost—27.08 percent to Hollande’s 28.63 percent—is small enough for him to see a glimmer of momentum. In the meantime, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front scored a very strong 18 percent, which gives her voters king-making potential. The far-left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who played to big, excited the crowds, did less well among actual voters, with 11.1 percent.

Sarkozy will hope he can draw Le Pen’s voters en masse, but most surveys show that he can only rely on about two-thirds of them. More than 80 percent of Mélenchon’s votes, meanwhile, are expected to go to Hollande. The moderate François Bayrou, who garnered 9.1 percent of the ballots, will probably see his supporters split down the middle. So Sarkozy is still in the race, but it’s going to be very, very tough.

The 57-year-old incumbent’s strategy now is to convince the French that disaster looms if Hollande replaces him. France’s economy and Europe’s are in a perilous state. Indeed, Europe is “a convalescent,” Sarkozy says. Paraphrasing the ominous words attributed to Louis XV, “après moi le déluge,” Sarkozy told the right-wing daily Le Figaro, in an interview published Friday, “I’m not saying, ‘After me, chaos.’” But of course he was. If any president reduces the pressure to bring down deficits (read: Hollande), “we’ll be swept away,” says Sarkozy. “France does not have the right to make a mistake!”

Hollande, 57, who cast his ballot this morning in the little town of Tulle deep in central France, has managed to build the momentum he has without the help of charisma or an impressive record. A protégé of the late socialist president François Mitterrand, Hollande himself has never held a cabinet post. He constructed his political base mainly as the head of the Socialist Party from 1997 to 2008, a period when the socialist presidential candidates (including his ex-partner and the mother of his four children, Ségolène Royal) fared very badly indeed. In 2002 the socialist candidate didn’t make it to the second round. In 2007 Sarkozy trounced Royal in the runoff.

But Hollande got lucky. Sarkozy’s most dynamic opponent a year ago seemed sure to be former finance minister and then–International Monetary Fund managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn. But DSK suddenly flamed out in scandals in New York and France before he ever had a chance to announce he intended to run. And once Hollande got the nomination, he made what now appears to have been the wise decision to present himself as the candidate of “normal.” Even his campaign T-shirts proclaim that bland virtue.

Hollande can have a sharp tongue on the podium, and he has adopted some predictable lefty stances in the campaign (the kinds of positions that Sarkozy threatens will bring on the deluge). Hollande wants to keep government jobs, not cut them. He calls big financial interests the “adversary.” He talks about taxing marginal income over €1 million ($1.32 million) a year at a rate of 75 percent. He (along with Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman and IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard, among others) questions the relentless austerity pressed on the continent by Germany. But Hollande famously told British financial interests, in English, “I am not dangerous.” Hollande’s greatest virtue in the minds of the French, in fact, is essentially negative. More than half of those who’ve told pollsters they’ll vote for Hollande in the second round have said they’ll do so because he’s not the incumbent.

So, how did Sarko—arguably one of the most brilliant political tacticians in French history—get screwed so badly he’s barely got a prayer of holding onto office? Four overlapping factors seem to have played key roles.

First of all, as the dinner-table cliché goes, “it’s not what he does, it’s who he is” that so many French find hard to stomach. Short and pugnacious, intense and vulgar, Sarkozy is not the kind of man with whom many French want to raise a glass of wine. In fact he drinks little or none at all. And neither is he one whom they naturally look up to. He never made it to the top of the elite schools that groomed most of the country’s leaders (including Hollande), and early in his presidency he gave the impression that big money with bad taste, or, as the French press would have it, “bling,” impressed the hell out of him.

In the first few months of Sarkozy’s first term he partied at the glitzy Champs-Élysées restaurant Fouquet’s on election night and then celebrated further on a friend’s yacht. His wife and adviser, Cécilia, dumped him rather than endure as his first lady. So, months later, Sarkozy remarried former supermodel Carla Bruni.

There was a vaguely Kardashian quality to the Sarkozy household in those days, even before anyone in France knew who the Kardashians were, and right up until this last week Sarkozy has been apologizing for his behavior back then. (He blames his unhappiness with Cécilia for his erratic behavior at the time.)

Neither classy nor notable for a common touch, Sarkozy’s slightest gesture can leave audiences uncomfortable. Recently he stripped an expensive watch off his wrist just before diving into a sea of well-wishers who wanted to shake his hand. Was he afraid they’d see it? Or steal it?

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Secondly, Sarkozy had the extraordinary bad luck to be a president who came to office embracing the global economy when, a year later, the global economy tanked. He had promised more money for more work, and in boom times young voters, especially, found that an alluring idea. But he’s been stuck since 2008 with unemployment hovering around 10 percent, which means for many people no work at any price. Could he have handled the crisis better? There has been endless second guessing, and it’s not unreasonable for him to think, as he does, that he should get points for helping to keep Europe from flatlining. But it’s hard to make bragging rights out of that word he uses for Europe’s present condition: “convalescent.”

Thirdly, after three years trying to present himself as a centrist open to all political currents and leftist celebrities, including several socialist stalwarts he brought into senior government positions, Sarkozy decided in 2010 to ditch that whole approach. In regional elections the socialists had wiped his party off the map. So Sarkozy decided to go back to his roots—the tough-guy “top cop” right-wing posturing that had helped him ascend from the Interior Ministry to the presidency in 2007. In that election he’d used carefully calculated anti-immigrant rhetoric to siphon off a huge amount of support from Jean-Marie Le Pen, the fiery curmudgeon of the ultraright. But over the last two years Jean-Marie has handed over the reins of the far right to his daughter Marine Le Pen, who took full advantage of the fact that Sarkozy’s stands on immigration and citizenship started to make her look moderate.

Fourthly, and finally, as the pressure has mounted on Sarkozy, his behavior has become more erratic, not less. And this just at the moment he’d like to present himself as a leader with a steady hand.

One can understand his frustration. Over the last year, nothing he could do had much of an impact on his abysmal approval rating. He led a successful war to oust Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and that accomplishment barely made a blip in the public’s appreciation. More recently, and much to his embarrassment, he has been at pains to deny what was known as a fact: that he tried like hell to sell Gaddafi a nuclear reactor back in 2007. Sarkozy and Carla had a baby girl, but even this foray into late-in-life fatherhood did not soften the harsh impression the president left on the public. Sarkozy already has three sons from his two previous marriages; Carla had one from another liaison. Neither the president nor the first lady make convincing homebodies.

In the closing weeks before today’s vote, Sarkozy started grabbing at policies like a man who’s besieged, looking frantically in the closet for a weapon he could shoot, or swing, or maybe just throw. Suddenly he started adopting some of Hollande’s positions: among them a call for the European Central Bank to play a bigger role in relaunching the European economy (which would contradict its charter), rent control for French apartments, and so on. To such an extent has Sarkozy suddenly embraced policies he previously rejected that the satirical and investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaîné dubbed him Mr. Chameleon.

Maybe this sort of behavior suddenly will be portrayed as sweet reason, or at least reasonable pragmatism, in the debates and speeches before the final vote on May 6. But unless Sarkozy can quit running against himself, it’s Hollande who will walk away with the French presidency next month.

-- with Tracy McNicoll in Tulle