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, Europe editor Article written by Gavin Hewitt Gavin Hewitt Europe editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    "President Sarkozy's difficulty is that the economy is stagnant and unemployment is at 10%"

    "His camp believe their best card is that the president has been tested in a crisis"

    Tested, and found wanting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    The most interesting cultural metaphor of the week is the way caviar has become a form of political abuse.

    You mention the amusing term `caviar left' used by Sarkosy above.

    A UK MP used the absence of VAT on caviar but its application to hot pasties as an illustration of class war. It is worrying that an MP knows so little about VAT law.

    Sturgeons rule OK!

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    They will all sell out the French people; including Melenchon.

    As with everywhere else in the world, the political egos are not the solution.
    People are fed up with them & all the corporate egos as well.

    Time for people to take control themselves through direct democracy.
    Just like the Paris Commune of 1871.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I suspect that Hollande may cause some upset in the Euro zone if he refuses the useless Pact. However, a Sarkozy victory would be more dangerous, as the last thing that Europe and the Euro zone needs is more of the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    M. Hollande should provide the alternative to Merkel's obsession with 'sound' money and austerity and may be the ECB will act like a proper central bank buy time for ailing economies to grow their way out of debt. Hollande will also test the Left's credibility in the UK although the policies are more likely to be radical the other side of the channel.


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