France elections: Campaign crescendo

 
Francois Hollande meets voters in Cenon, south-west France, 19 Apr 12 Victory for Francois Hollande would end 17 years of centre-right presidential rule

By the end of the day campaigning in the French elections will cease. President Sarkozy will hold his final rally in Nice before voting begins on Sunday in the first round.

The president is the underdog. The polls are against him. He remains defiant, rounding on the media - what he calls "the Parisian caviar left" - for writing him off. He has a stubborn belief in the good sense of the silent majority. But within his camp the doubts are showing.

Francois Hollande - the Socialist candidate - is counting down the clock. That's how it seems. He sticks to his message without taking risks.

I am always struck how much time Mr Hollande has. After a campaign rally he likes to hang around, to meet, talk and yes, to laugh. I once asked him a question about the City of London and he threw back his head and chuckled before answering.

He describes himself as Mr Normal, and therein lies part of his success so far. He sells himself as the French everyman, a leader France could feel comfortable with after the hyperactive President Sarkozy. Every poll has him winning in the second round. Last night I asked him whether he'll win. "I'm not certain", he told me, "but it's possible".

He's a Socialist who will stand up to the financial markets, squeeze the rich and favour growth over austerity.

President Sarkozy has struggled to lay a glove on him. I have heard his supporters call Hollande "Flamby" - a brand of wobbly caramel pudding. Privately the French president thinks he's useless.

Budget concerns
President Sarkozy speaking in St Maurice near Paris, 19 Apr 12 Mr Sarkozy has toned down the "bling bling" trappings of the presidency

Sarkozy's most recent line of attack is to warn that Hollande will engage in a festival of spending. Francois Hollande's appeal is that he offers to save the French dream, to protect the French way of life.

President Sarkozy's difficulty is that the economy is stagnant and unemployment is at 10%. In the past month when I have visited factories and offices I have asked what is the main issue. Unemployment always comes top.

The president's other problem is that he is forever trying to rebrand himself. Hollande calls him "Mr Zigzag".

There is, however, less restlessness with the president these days. He has always been a champion of success but the image persists of a "bling bling" presidency. These days his wife Carla Bruni insists "we are just modest people".

For all that the campaign has an air of unreality. No candidate really talks about the debt crisis or the spending cuts that surely will have to come, or the changes to the welfare system that must follow. There are no votes in austerity, it seems.

What the electorate seems to prefer is bashing the financial markets - and all the candidates have tapped into that.

I listened to the far right candidate Marine Le Pen the other night raging against liberal capitalism. And the far left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who calls for a citizens' uprising, can't wait for the chance to confiscate all earnings above 350,000 euros.

The other message from France is a disillusionment with globalisation and supranational institutions like the EU. The French believe that system has failed to protect jobs. Those institutions are seen as the projects of an elite, and ordinary people are unconvinced they are on their side.

A quarter of voters say they have yet to make up their minds. President Sarkozy really needs to win the first round on Sunday to get some momentum. His camp believe their best card is that the president has been tested in a crisis, while his main opponent has never been in government.

Europe is holding its breath. For if Francois Hollande wins, France will have a president who believes that the debt crisis can only be fought with more growth and not more austerity. Berlin, which has set the narrative in the past year, will face a challenge.

 
Gavin Hewitt Article written by Gavin Hewitt Gavin Hewitt Europe editor

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 110.

    Margaret: I strongly suspect it is a deliberate policy to talk it down wishing it to fail

    As Europe's economies are linked by Euro
    if one state's economy ails
    the other states economies ail also

    Its funny cause' for so long many European states
    fought against each other
    b/c did not want to be ruled by the other

    Today these same European states
    are ruled by EU

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 109.

    Oaktree,

    What you call 'gone down the hill'
    is today
    the strongest economy in EU

    How did Germany get out of recession?
    Manufacturing+exports

    If it wasn't for Germany's success
    who else would be holding EU up?

    Thing is their austerity measures on EU
    aren't too popular

    Just look at all the Czechs protesting today against such

    Germany has to be careful not to push too far

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 108.

    #107 MH

    The wall fell in 1989. Those born in that year are now 23 and those then 20 are now 43.

    The importance of the event cannot be appreciated by many --only by those interested in politics at the time. Even in the old DDR, for those under 35 the wall is not a topic.

    That is one reason I believe Merkel is important for Europe and not only Germany --she knows what happened and lived it.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 107.

    104 threnodio - 105 QOT
    The successful rebuilding of Eastern Europe after the awful Soviet years convinces me that Europe will tackle the latest banker-made crisis.

    The man in the street will again have to pay for a mismanagement that was not his fault. But that's happened many times before - men like Stalin and Hitler die leaving our worlds in ruin and we are left to pick up the pieces.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 106.

    #104 Threnodio

    -- The southern German states are now the wealthiest (Bavaria etc), and the lowest unemployment, Berlin and the old DDR the highest. The social bill alone must be massive. Some time ago someone said the DDR rebuilding must be around 2 trillion -- but I doubt if anybody knows. The east of Germany was always a poor region. Wages are generally lower --but also some living costs.

 

Comments 5 of 110

 

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