Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande arrived at this week’s presidential debate with not particularly honourable aims. Mr Hollande sought to hold Mr Sarkozy responsible for economic developments during the latter’s five years as president of France. That included events not under Mr Sarkozy’s control, from the global finance crash of 2008 to the price of petrol. “You said that if unemployment didn’t fall below 5 per cent, it would be a failure,” Mr Hollande said. “Well, it’s a failure.”
Mr Sarkozy, meanwhile, saw the debate as a contest not of character but of testosterone. Having threatened to light up (exploser) and pulverise (atomiser) Mr Hollande, he called his challenger a liar and subjected him to other infantile taunts. (“You think all you need to do is show up in your little suit! You think it’s easy to manage the euro crisis!”) That Mr Hollande did not sink to this level won him the debate. That Mr Sarkozy thought he had to go for the low blows tells us some grim truths about contemporary politics, not just in France.
Here are two decently educated men with steel-trap minds. They have mastered the details of various arcane policy dossiers. One of their most heated disagreements concerned whether the debt had grown by €500bn or €600bn during Mr Sarkozy’s term. Both are capable of arguing with devastating logic and both had their moments. Mr Hollande easily parried the accusation that he would close down France’s nuclear industry to cosset the Greens. Mr Sarkozy demolished Mr Hollande in their discussion of immigration, producing a letter from the Socialist to an immigrant-rights association that seemed to promise a lenient deportation regime.
Yet, while both could defend their principles logically, they seldom did so. Mr Sarkozy saw more advantage in discussing Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Mr Hollande’s failure to distance himself from an assembly candidate who had compared a Sarkozy speech to a Nuremberg rally. The French presidency is ceremonial and quasi-monarchical – the person who holds it is not just head of government but head of state. It has traditionally been a role for a consensus-builder, even if consensus needs to be built (as it was under De Gaulle) on a few pious historical lies. Both men have given up on this role. It seems not to win elections.
Much as Mr Sarkozy is criticised as divisive, his political problem may be that he was not divisive enough. His legacy is too modest on which to seek re-election. He has carried out a responsible reform of universities, a responsible law against data piracy, and a responsible reform of retirement ages that Mr Hollande riskily proposes to undo. None of that sings to the public. Mr Sarkozy’s political contemporary Barack Obama is just as unpopular, but the US president is in a much better political position, not because his country is in better shape, but because an army of partisan die-hards has rallied behind him.
Mr Obama’s battles for stimulus spending and national health, whether or not they impress socialist purists, have convinced the left wing of his party that Mr Obama is their man. He has no need to say another word to them until after the election. He can address himself exclusively to his country’s moderates. Mr Sarkozy cannot do this. His abandonment of the one project dear to his rightwing base – the conversation, however ill-defined, on immigration and national identity – has left him without a political family. He has spent the past weeks trying to reintroduce himself to the French public. If historians retain one memory from this week’s debate it will be the strange peroration in which Mr Hollande repeated the phrase Moi, president de la république 15 times. In any election outside of France it would have subjected the candidate to ridicule and defeat, but the French seemed to like it. It is almost a replacement for substance. Mr Hollande has focused on a lot of formerly hot-button social issues that in today’s economic landscape look rather like distractions, from quotas for male-female parity in cabinet posts to easier euthanasia.
Neither of France’s two main parties appears capable of assembling a majority to address big challenges. This may be because the big challenges are all being played out at the European level. It may be because Marine Le Pen’s post-fascist National Front won 18 per cent of the first-round vote and she has shown no inclination to throw her support behind someone else.
With legislative elections set to follow in June, Mr Sarkozy’s party is split between those who would embrace the National Front openly and those who will have nothing to do with it. It is a strange election. The candidate who loses will have a hard time holding his party together. The one who wins will have a hard time holding society together.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard