Sarko rallies the troops but the guillotine looms

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As election sabres rattle in Paris, can any leader bring real change to France?

Two opposing armies, the "Hollandistes" and the "Sarkozyistes", will assemble in their tens of thousands for rival open-air rallies in Paris today. The President's troops will gather in the heart of the city, in the Place de la Concorde. They will hear their man speaking near the spot on which a French head of state was separated from his tête in January 1793.

Feisty as ever, Nicolas Sarkozy will urge voters to ignore the most recent batch of guillotine-shaped opinion polls. The President of the Republic plans to lead "the people" to the barricades. The head of the party of the rich and the Catholic middle classes wants to lead the "silent majority" against the "arrogant" Parisian media and political elite. Mr Sarkozy believes that he will, against the odds, top the poll in the first round of the presidential election a week today, and win the second round two weeks later.

Eight kilometres to the east, the forces of the socialist front-runner, François Hollande, will assemble like a besieging army near the Château de Vincennes, on the edge of the capital. His supporters will chant "François president" – just as they did for another François, 21 years ago. Their champion, a dumpy, balding, likeable man in a rumpled suit and glasses, says that he is the herald of "change now". His cautious, vague brand of socialism will, he says, "profoundly transform" France in order to preserve as much as possible of the status quo of the most generous welfare state in the world.

After a shift towards Mr Sarkozy in recent weeks, the latest polls suggest that Mr Hollande – the favourite for more than six months – will become the second socialist president of the Fifth Republic on 6 May.

As the election approaches the first of its two climaxes, each of the 10 candidates claims to be the only true representative of "change". In France, claiming to represent the "ancient regime" is not a formula for political longevity. Almost every key French election for the past three decades has guillotined some kind of incumbent.

But the real issue, as in all French elections, is how France can change without changing. Its voters have a nasty habit of demanding change, then doing all they can to block all changes. The French are torn perennially between knowing that they must change and fearing that they will lose those things – services, qualité de vivre – that allow France to be France.

French voters, in blogs and phone-ins, complain that the campaign has avoided the "big questions". How can France continue to afford its large public sector – 55 per cent of GDP, against an OECD average of 43 per cent – in an era in which state debt and deficits are punished by the markets? How can France, which has not balanced a state budget since 1974, afford a welfare state that absorbs 31 per cent of GDP (the highest for any large Western nation)?

How can France recover its international competitive edge and reduce its growing trade deficits in a globalised world? Where are the jobs to come from to reduce an unemployment rate of almost 10 per cent? In truth, these questions have been addressed by all the candidates, one way or the other. But it has been apparent that there is a limited electoral benefit in France from talk of blood, sweat or tears.

President Sarkozy began his campaign by urging the French to be more like the Germans and agree, in effect, to earn less to create more jobs. In 2007, he promised they would work more and earn more. More than 400,000 jobs have been lost since then. Mr Sarkozy quickly realised that using Churchillian rhetoric and adopting Angela Merkel as his running-mate was a formula for defeat.

The past six weeks of his campaign have been an exercise in changing the subject: to immigration, the Islamist threat and the cultural dangers of halal meat and separate hours for women in swimming pools. He has campaigned, passionately, on such existential questions as new rules for driving licences to help the young; and the payment of pensions on the first of the month to help the old.

Most of all, he has fought on hard-right, hot-button issues, raising a new "enemy" and a new "idea" almost daily. His latest enemy, on Thursday night, was the Financial Times, guilty of wanting to impose the failed British model on France. Once in that mood, Mr Sarkozy, like a 10-year-old boy, is capable of saying almost anything. At several rallies, he said he had visited the site of the nuclear catastrophe in Japan to check there were no lessons for the French nuclear industry. Mr Hollande pointed out last week that Mr Sarkozy has never been to Fukushima in his life.

The socialist candidate does not make outrageous claims. He doesn't make many specific claims or promises at all. Mr Hollande accepts that there must be strict budget discipline; he promises to reduce France's 5.6 per cent of GDP budget deficit to zero over six years. Unlike Ms Merkel and David Cameron, he insists there must also be strategic investments and policies to promote growth, and he promises to reopen the EU fiscal pact.

The problem is that Mr Hollande does not explain very clearly how he will cut French state spending or how growth-creation projects would work. He is much more specific about new ways of raising revenue, including a 75 per cent tax on incomes over €1m.

In truth, there is no way that a socialist candidate in France could hope to be elected with a more specific programme of spending cuts. The proof of that is the rise of the "harder-left" candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who threatens to knock Marine Le Pen's far right into fourth place next Sunday. Mr Mélenchon, 60, is a talented, bad-tempered rabble-rouser with a lisp. He sees nothing wrong in the Cuban economic and social model. His plans for an anti-capitalist revolution in France include nationalising the entire energy sector and some banks. He is against free trade and competition and economic "performance". He is in favour of "humanity" and "love".

It is hard to imagine another Western country in which such a programme would attract up to 17 per cent of the vote. Mr Mélenchon's rise is double-edged for Mr Hollande. It could help him win next month – then make his life a misery. At a recent rally in Limoges, a straw poll suggested that almost all supporters of Mr Mélenchon's "Front de Gauche" expected to vote for Mr Hollande in the second round. The latest polls put the Hollande-Mélenchon-Trotskyist-Green vote at around 46 per cent.

The socialist candidate therefore needs, in theory, only a handful of votes to transfer from Ms Le Pen or the centrist François Bayrou to win the second round on 6 May. Polls suggest one in three of far-right and centre voters prefer the cuddly Mr Hollande to the frenetic, egotistical Sarko.

But Mr Mélenchon is here to stay. His popularity means that he will probably win a significant bloc of seats in the parliamentary elections which follow in June. In the name of "radical change", he will work his troops into a red mist if a future President Hollande seeks radical changes to the apparatus of the French state.

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