Last updated: April 21, 2012 12:31 am

Will France vote bling or bland?

How candidates look reflects not just their opposing personal styles but their style of government

On Sunday the French electorate goes to the polls for the first round of presidential elections, which are widely expected to result in a François Hollande/Nicolas Sarkozy face-off in round two. Much has been made of this being a quasi-referendum on the future of the euro, France’s relationship with Germany and the rate of taxation on the top 10 per cent of the population (not to mention whether or not France feels it’s time to get a Socialist back in the Elysée). But it seems to me there’s another issue also at stake that hasn’t really been discussed but is equally interesting: the question of what it means to appear presidential in a straitened economic era.

I use the word “appear” literally, you understand; not to refer to carriage or speech or even empathetic facial expressions but to actual looks: hair, dress and accessories.

Before you accuse me of superficiality in serious times, consider the fact that, if things turn out as expected, the vote will come down to two men with the nicknames “President Bling-Bling” and “Mr Normal”. Clearly, I’m not the only one thinking about style in this context. Indeed, in this election perhaps more than any other recent one (certainly more than the current US contest, where the two likely contenders, in suits at least, are very similar; or the recent Russian ballot, which pitted one leather jacket against the other), how the candidates look reflects not just their opposing personal styles but their style of government.

“President Bling-Bling” refers, of course, to Sarkozy, who was lauded upon election in 2007 for wearing a trim Prada suit to his swearing-in, a nice piece of European Union outreach. He has since displayed a penchant for not just political but appearance-related statements, from the lifts in his shoes to his love of expensive watches – he wore a Rolex until Carla Bruni, his wife, gave him a Patek Philippe as a wedding gift – and his often-present Ray-Ban sunglasses. Sarkozy has displayed a great affection for the fashion world: since he took office he has awarded the Légion d’honneur to at least 15 fashion insiders – more than three times as many as Chirac and Mitterrand combined; while Bernard Arnault, chairman of luxury group LVMH, was a witness at his wedding to Bruni.

“Mr Normal” is François Hollande, whose receding hairline, so-so-fitting suits and plain glasses are seen as just as colourless and bland as his oratory. Still, his almost Hollywood-perfect average-ness is striking a chord with the polled electorate (or at least exerting no negative effect), who often have him leading Sarkozy in round two.

The consensus seems to be that in the current political/economic climate French voters want leaders who do not appear to devote too much time or effort to their appearance. They want leaders who seem to understand the struggles of the public and who telegraph values of 1) hard work; and 2) a normal income level. Ironically, though, rival would-be leaders are devoting ever more effort to figuring out how to dress for that part. Indeed, the sartorial line they have to walk may be subtler, harder to define, than in previous elections, where old assumptions meant that the electorate wanted someone just like them as leader, only better – better hair, better teeth, broader shoulders etc. This is the climate Sarkozy first ran in, and how to do it, sartorially at least, was clear. Not so any more.

. . .

Hollande, for example, may look “normal” but it would be naive to think that is not a carefully considered pose. After losing the last run-off to his then partner, Ségolène Royal, Hollande underwent a makeover of sorts, losing 33lb (thanks to the Atkins-like, protein-heavy Dukan diet), and trading nerdy heavy-rimmed glasses for hipper rimless models. Indeed, the new Hollande looks like nothing so much as a member of Italian prime minister Mario Monti’s appointed government, many of whom also wear thin-rimmed glasses and a rumpled look.

Meanwhile, advisers in the Sarkozy camp have reportedly been encouraging the first lady, aka Carla Bruni-Sarkozy – who a mere three years ago was compared to Marie Antoinette by weekly magazine Point de Vue – to engage in a “make-under”. After all, it’s not really an option for a sitting president to change style for an election; it makes them seem desperate and opens them up to charges of flip-flopping, which is never a good look. But the wife – well, she is supposed to be a strategic tool. So Bruni-Sarkozy has traded her Dior and Hermès dresses for trouser suits, grey leggings and baggy sweaters, and is otherwise downplaying her sex-bomb appeal and up-playing motherhood and a love of French soap operas in order to seem more like a regular Jane.

In any case, it will be interesting to see which look prevails in both rounds one and two, and by how much. Depending on the answer, we may well be entering an era where a new paradigm in presidential style emerges: the electable technocrat. Magnetic – yet average. Serious – but reassuringly seductive. Smart – mentally, but not so much sartorially.

Is it possible to lead when you look like the background? We’ll find out soon enough.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

Man in the news: François Hollande

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