Sarkozy or Hollande: France prepares to choose its future

As the French decide between two very different roads ahead, John Lichfield looks at the presidential candidates' visions

If François Hollande fails to emerge this weekend as the first Socialist president of France since 1995, every French opinion pollster will surely be searching for a new career.

Final surveys by seven polling companies give the challenger between 52.5 per cent and 53.5 per cent of the vote before the second and final round of the French presidential election tomorrow.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has cut Mr Hollande's lead in recent days to between five and seven points. He hopes that his unashamed siren songs to the far right, and a massive turn-out by his own camp, could yet save his presidency.

He told cheering supporters in Vendée in western France yesterday that the election was on a "razor's edge". Mr Sarkozy complained that he had been deluged with insults by the media and political establishment for daring to use the word "immigration". This was, he said, a form of anti-French "racism and intolerance."

Mr Hollande, 57, addressing an open-air meeting inToulouse, appealed to voters to give him a "massive" victory and a "clear" mandate to govern for the next five years. Pollsters said Mr Hollande's victory might be narrower than his lead in the final surveys suggested but that the outcome was almost beyond doubt. Gaël Sliman of the BVA polling agency said: "With the exception of a completely unforeseen catastrophe... François Hollande is going to win the presidential election."

In the final week of the campaign, Mr Sarkozy has narrowed the eight- to 10- point lead held by Mr Hollande. In the past three days, however, the President's slender hopes of an electoral miracle suffered a double setback.

Mr Sarkozy, also 57, was widely judged – even within his own centre-right camp – to have "lost" a bad-tempered live television debate with Mr Hollande on Wednesday night. The next day, François Bayrou of the middle-of-the-road Mouvement Démocrate (MoDem) became the first centrist French leader in recent times to announce he would vote for a left-wing presidential candidate. The centrist leader – once spoken of a possible prime minister in a Sarkozy second term – said the President had trampled Gaullist, Republican and European values and could not accept such a "headlong pursuit" of the 17.9 per cent of electors who voted for Marine Le Pen's far right on 22 April.

The President's heated language was blamed yesterday for an ugly incident at his Toulon rally. Young Sarkozy supporters threw plastic bottles full of water at a the well-known TV presenter, Ruth Elkrief, and a colleague and accused them of being "collaborationists" and "sold out" to the Left. Mr Sarkozy later apologised.

Nicolas Sarkozy: If the President is re-elected it will be an aberration

France does not want another five years of Nicolas Sarkozy. If the President is re-elected tomorrow, it will be an aberration: a triumph of cynicism and scare-tactics over the ill-defined "normality" and "unity" offered by François Hollande.

A second term would be built, partly, on appeals to racial-religious faultlines. That has never happened in the modern history of French presidential politics (since 1965).

The attack by the centrist leader François Bayrou on Thursday – calling Sarkozy's campaign "dangerous" – has angered some senior members of the President's party. Others, including at least two former centre-right prime ministers, privately agree with Mr Bayrou. Even if Mr Sarkozy wins, they ask, what mandate would he have to unite a fragmented France in the next five years?

Nicolas Sarkozy began his campaign as a sober euro-realist, with Angela Merkel as his de facto running mate. France should be more like Germany, he said. It should work harder and pay higher VAT to cut the payroll taxes on employers.

He has ended up with the language, themes, and tactics of the far-right National Front. It is one thing to call for the creation of new "frontiers" to stop "French civilisation" being wiped out by Europe, by immigration and by globalisation. It is another thing to try to smear your opponent as the candidate of Islam.

Mr Sarkozy, amid other exaggerations, has repeated the falsehood that 700 French mosques have appealed for a pro-Hollande vote.

By mid-February, it was clear that the main issue in the campaign would be Mr Sarkozy. A visceral dislike of the president had gripped many beyond the normal boundaries of right-left politics. Why? An easy explanation would be the economic crisis. Mr Sarkozy promised that he would make France work harder and live better. In the last five years, unemployment has soared to over 10 per cent and purchasing power has fallen.

Another easy explanation would be Mr Sarkozy's attempts at reform. His belated pension reform in 2010-11 was courageous. Otherwise, he has tried relatively little.

In truth, Mr Sarkozy's unpopularity began in his first 18 months in office: a blur of yachts, Rolex watches, divorce, a trophy marriage,nepotism towards his son and insults exchanged with the public. If France had boomed, all might have been forgiven. It did not.

The President and his advisers concluded in February that a plunge to the far right was his only hope of victory. The plan was to shift back towards Mr Bayrou's consensual centre after topping the poll in the first round on 22 April. But Mr Hollande just topped the poll and Marine Le Pen's far right scored a record 17.9 per cent. He plunged further to the right after the FN votes. A one-term Sarkozy will, in a way, be a political tragedy. His qualities have led him beyond mould-breaking and into villainy.

François Hollande: After years of frenzy, France wants a 'Monsieur Normal'

Three months ago, The Independent asked François Hollande why anyone would want to be president of France in the next five, difficult and possibly dangerous years.

Did this approachable, thoughtful but elusive man have a secret desire to become the most detested person in France? Mr Hollande replied: "I ran because I felt that, at this time, and perhaps at no other time, I have the combination of qualities which ... will allow [France] to succeed: stability, serenity, reflection, restraint."

The Socialist candidate was then already the frontrunner to be the next French president. This weekend, according to the opinion polls, he stands on the verge of victory.

As often with Mr Hollande, his reply can be read in different ways. What he really meant, perhaps, was that France was exhausted by the glamour and frenzy of the Sarkozy years. It wanted – as it might never want at any other time – an understated sort of president, a "Monsieur Normal". After 30 years in frontline French politics, always admired, often underestimated, never given a top job, this was going to be his year.

You might also interpret his words as meaning: "Sarkozy is so disliked that all it needs for the Left to win is an inoffensive man who can drift into the Elysée Palace on the anti-Sarko tide." Or you could take Mr Hollande at his quietly messianic word. To get out of the mess we are in, France, and Europe, need a man like me: patient, pragmatic, likeable but stubborn.

Mr Hollande, 57, is not the French Tony Blair. He does not claim to have reinvented left-wing politics for the 21st century. If anything, he is a Gallic version of the quietly reformist Labour prime minister that Britain never had – John Smith, whose death in 1994 opened the door to Blairism.

Mr Hollande has fought a nerveless, understated campaign. His core economic policy – "oui" to fiscal discipline "with fairness", but with Keynesian infrastructure programmes at EU level to kick-start growth – was mocked three months ago. It is now the conventional wisdom from the European Central Bank to Wall Street. It remains to be seen whether the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, will also concur.

The problems begin with the fiscal discipline element. The Socialist candidate has pledged to reduce the French state deficit to zero by 2017. He has said almost nothing about cuts in state spending. Mr Hollande, if elected, will have no real mandate for paring back the most generous welfare state in the world. He asks big questions – on unemployment and growth – but offers mostly small answers.

"Stability, serenity, reflection and restraint" are excellent qualities in a president but the times also call for courage and for creative thinking. The stakes are high. A new "centre-right" under Mr Sarkozy has failed. If a newish centre-left under Mr Hollande also fails, a boulevard will open to the plausible ultra-nationalism and cosmetically altered xenophobia of Marine Le Pen.

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