Sarko rallies the troops but the guillotine looms

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio, at an awards show in 2010
filmsDe Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
News
i100
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
Sport
England captain Wayne Rooney during training
FOOTBALLNew captain vows side will deliver against Norway for small crowd
Life and Style
Red or dead: An actor portrays Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory, rumoured to have bathed in blood to keep youthful
health
News
peopleJustin Bieber charged with assault and dangerous driving after crashing quad bike into a minivan
News
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Sport
Radamel Falcao poses with his United shirt
FOOTBALLRadamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant in Colombia to Manchester United's star signing
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Front-Office Developer (C#, .NET, Java,Artificial Intelligence)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Front-Of...

C++ Quant Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

Java/Calypso Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Java/Calypso Developer Java, Calypso, J2EE, J...

SQL Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer SQL, C#, Stored Procedures, MDX...

Day In a Page

Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

Stolen youth

Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

Made by Versace, designed by her children

Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Anyone for pulled chicken?

Pulling chicks

Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
9 best steam generator irons

9 best steam generator irons

To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
England v Norway: Wayne Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

New captain vows side will deliver for small Wembley crowd
‘We knew he was something special:’ Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing

‘We knew he was something special’

Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York