French election candidates recall glory days

A montage image Francois Hollande (L) and Nicholas Sarkozy (R)

Voting for a new French president begins on Sunday and the political rivals are keen to demonstrate that history is on their side.

They had gathered in their tens of thousands at the Chateau de Vincennes, a medieval castle on the eastern outskirts of the city.

While nothing can be taken for granted, their presidential candidate - the unassuming Francois Hollande - seems quietly confident that victory is in sight.

"We've waited a long time for this," said a man in the crowd, carrying a small boy on his shoulders. "A very long time."

It has been 30 years since a socialist challenger won a French presidential election. But this is actually an election campaign which has dug far deeper into French history.

There has been something of an obsession with the romantic mythology of a glorious French past.

While Hollande's supporters showed their strength at Vincennes, the incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy laid claim to the centre of the city, with a huge rally in the Place de la Concorde.

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In his speech, the president launched an impassioned defence of "Eternal France", embodied he said by Moliere, Napoleon and Charles De Gaulle. It was a patriotic appeal, designed to rouse the faithful.

The right wing newspaper Le Figaro described Mr Sarkozy's performance as "rich, lyrical and forward-looking". The left wing Liberation called him "nonsensical and inert".

One thing is for sure - he will not be giving up without a fight.

The president did not mention the fact that he was standing on the spot where Louis the XVI was executed, at the height of the French Revolution. But Hollande spotted a chance to score an historical point of his own.

"I am not asking for anyone's head to be cut off," he said. "I'm simply asking for another one to be chosen."

But the prize for the best use of history repackaged as politics goes without doubt to the left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, who has been the surprise wildcard in this campaign.

Jean-Luc Melenchon Jean-Luc Melenchon wants to keep the euro but review EU's priorities

A month ago, he led a crowd of tens of thousands in a symbolic march on the Bastille, the former prison stormed so famously in 1789, when it was the hated symbol of the despotic Bourbon monarchy, and the old regime.

Some of Melenchon's modern-day supporters wore the red liberty caps of the 18th Century revolt, as they heard their man call for a peaceful civic insurrection.

"Spirit of the Bastille, we are back," he told an enormous crowd. "The people of French revolutions and rebellions."

He will not win, but Mr Melenchon has shaken up this presidential race with his impassioned rhetoric.

And his references to the past are quite deliberate.

The idea of France as a great power, at the centre of world events, simply makes people feel good about themselves, whether on the left or the right.

The French left see themselves as the inheritors of the great revolutionary spirit, and Mr Melenchon's battle cries remind them of these ideological roots.

Marine Le Pen Marine Le Pen wants to reduce annual immigration to 5% of its current level

And at the other end of the spectrum, the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen also looks back towards a very different but equally idealised vision of France - more nationalist, less open, with far fewer immigrants.

Like her father before her, she would like to claim the mantle of the French patron saint, Joan of Arc, who kicked out the invaders. But the Maid of Orleans is also a national symbol, greater than any single party.

But why so much harking back towards the past?

One of the main reasons is that the present is making everyone so anxious. The eurozone crisis, and in particular the comparison of the French economy to Germany, has cast a pall of gloom over this election season.

There are calls for change, and for economic renewal and reform, but not much appetite for the tough choices which loom in the near future.

Social security? Pensions? It is easier to look back to a golden age and summon a spirit of resistance.

So the past is a comfort zone, the only place where all the main candidates can sketch out their vision of hope.

But fast forward to the present, and this is in the main an election without a feel-good factor.

That is a source of concern for everyone. But usually it is bad news in particular for an incumbent.

The socialist flags were billowing in the breeze, and there was a chill wind blowing from the east. But for many in the crowd it must have felt like a wind of change, about to sweep down through Paris.

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