Analysis: French presidential election campaign 2012

Why did Sarkozy lose the French presidential election?

Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday failed to win reelection as president of France. He was defeated by François Hollande, who is only the second Socialist to hold the post since direct election started in 1958.


Since 1958 only Giscard d'Estaing has failed to win a second term, apart from Georges Pompidou who died in office. Sarkozy, whose popularity slumped while he was in office, staged a determined comeback campaign, reducing Hollande’s lead over him in the polls. But he lost when it counted – on polling day.

Hollande steps into the historical shoes of François Mitterrand, the first Socialist to be elected by popular suffrage, who was first elected in 1981 and reelected in 1988.

It started so well for Sarkozy. He was elected with 53.06 per cent of the votes. Much of the media supported his promise to “modernise” France’s economy and institutions and the message had gone down will with much of the public. His bid for far-right votes paid off well in 2007, too, with the Front National’s Jean-Marie Le Pen receiving just 10.44 per cent in the first round.

Sarkozy could also boast that he hadn’t backed down faced with trade union and left-wing opposition to some of his favourite projects, most notably raising the retirement age.

So what went wrong?

Bling: The French dislike ostentation so much that they’ve named it twice – the English “bling” has become “bling-bling” and Sarkozy has become known as “le président bling-bling”. A victory dinner at the swish Champs Elysées restaurant Le Fouquet’s attended by dozens of captains of industry and media movers and shakers set the tone. Then there was the holiday on the yacht of advertising and media boss Vincent Bolloré, not to mention the wage rise for the presidency, the 55,000-euro watch and the ex-supermodel wife. Sarkozy argued that, like a wealth-creating entrepreneur, he deserved to be well remunerated for working hard. Many less well-off people saw such flashiness as a slap in the face as their incomes suffered or they lost their jobs and some middle-class voters found it just plain vulgar.

Private life: Apart from a few strict Catholics nobody in the pays de l’amour cared that the president had been divorced, even if it did weaken his critique of the legacy of the 60s. But when his break-up with his second wife, Cécilia, was played out in front of the gossip magazines, his first reception at the Elysée presidential palace became part of his campaign to persuade her to stay and he married a former supermodel-turned-singer a year after she finally left, many French people began to ask if this was politics or showbiz. By the time their daughter, Giulia, was born, the Bruni-Sarkozys had toned it down a bit and the family played little role in the 2012 election campaign.

Temper, temper!: When he was interior minister from 2002 to 2004, Sarkozy cultivated a blunt-speaking, tough-acting persona. But when he became president it became clear that this attribute was accompanied by a thin skin and a short temper. Telling a member of the public to “Clear off, loser!” or arguing with a farmer who compared her lifestyle unfavourably with his own, along with several brusque exchanges with journalists, struck many French people as lacking the gravitas required of a president.

Vendettas: Sarkozy’s many enemies accuse him of personal vindictiveness against anyone who crosses him. Former star news reader Patrick Poivre d’Avour believes he was sidelined after telling the president that he had behaved like a thrilled little boy at one of his first international summits. A number of civil servants believe they were sent to the boondocks for infractions such as failing to keep anti-Sarkozy protests off the television. Former Paris-Match director Alain Genestar says he was driven out of his job because the magazine published an account of Cécilia’s affair with advertising boss Richard Attias. And then there are his sworn enemy former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, who quit the Sarkozy-dominated UMP to form his own party and the family of former president Jacques Chirac, who regard Sarkozy as a traitor.

Dossier - The Bettencourt scandal

Scandals: A few sex scandals involving UMP ministers and mayors have done Sarkozy no real harm, especially given that the Socialists had Dominique Strauss-Kahn. But allegations that the country’s richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, already embroiled with a much-publicised row with her daughter, illegally financed his election campaign led to the resignation of labour minister EricWoerth, a legal inquiry and accusations that the secret services spied on journalists looking into the scandal. Claims that the regime of deposed Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi also chipped in followed, hotly denied by Sarkozy.

Relations with the media: With a number of media barons in the “Le Fouquets gang”, Sarkozy has been accused of exercising undue influence on the media. In 2010 muckraking paper Le Canard enchaîné accused him of ordering intelligence agents to snoop on reporters and Le Monde later complained of some of its reporters being spied on. Many of France’s habitually partisan newspapers fell out of love with the president as his mandate continued and the feeling was mutual, ending with reporters being manhandled at Sarkozy rallies in the last weekend of the presidential campaign.

Dossier: Eurozone in crisis

Race to the right: Difficult to say if it has helped or hindered his reelection but Sarkozy has made no secret of flirting with far-right voters. The law against face-covering garments, charges that votes for foreigners would lead to halal meat in school canteens and numerous statements by Sarkozy and his allies have led to accusations of racism and especially Islamophobia.

Economic crisis: None of the above was probably decisive. But the economic crisis was. The president who had promised an American-style free-market France prospering in a globalised world has presided over the closure of factories and other businesses, a rise in unemployment and a population that feels that its economic security is on the edge. The crisis is global, with a particularly sharp edge in the eurozone, and Sarkozy argued that not only was it not his fault but also that he was the man to tackle it. But the millions of voters who backed the Front National’s Marine Le Pen didn’t believe him, nor did those who voted for the left.

And so François Hollande was elected.

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