Analysis: French presidential election 2012

Why Nicolas Sarkozy thinks he will beat François Hollande in French presidential election final round

Reuters/Yves Herman

Despite being the first sitting French president ever to take only second place in the first round of the elections, Nicolas Sarkozy appeared more combative and determined than ever when he made his speech on Sunday night.

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But why, after François Hollande’s lead of almost two percentage points and an impressive 18.06 per cent score for Marine Le Pen’s far right Front National, was he smiling?

Marine Le Pen has little interest in advising her supporters to transfer their votes to Sarkozy – strategically she would benefit from his defeat and the likely subsequent implosion of his right-wing UMP party.

She has said she will make an announcement on 1 May, but it is possible that many of her fans could choose not to support either of the two remaining candidates.

Sarkozy also has to attract the 9.11 per cent of the electorate who gave their votes to centre-right Modem candidate François Bayrou.

Appealing to both groups at the same time will be extremely difficult and Sarkozy has no doubt that the next two weeks will be tough.

But anyone who on Sunday night watched French television coverage of the event will have detected a distinct defensiveness among Socialist politicians lined up to comment in TV studios and an almost palpable concern about round two.

Front National scores are routinely dismissed as protest votes, but Sarkozy has consistently maintained that the Front National offers unrealistic and simplistic solutions to very legitimate concerns.

An Ipsos poll taken before the vote suggests what the main concerns of Front National supporters are: immigration, law and order and purchasing power, in that order.

These are mostly Sarkozy subjects.

That’s why Sarkozy last night threw out a challenge to Hollande. He wants three TV debates before round two on 6 May, instead of the traditional single face to face.

Sarkozy’s tactic has always been to try to address the French people directly. He complains that the majority of French media are controlled by a left-wing chattering class who loathe him.

But even his opponents concede that he is a formidable television debater and he hopes in the next two weeks to win the contest with Hollande by giving the electorate the chance to compare side by side two personalities, two political projects, without the filter of television and newspaper commentators.

Hollande has already refused to do more than the traditional one inter-round debate, and Socialist Party bigwig Manuel Valls asked on Monday, “Why should we concede to his [Sarkozy’s] capricious demands?”

But Sarkozy smells fear and he will exploit it, asking why the French people do not merit three television debates when there were three televised Socialist Party primary debates?

Sarkozy says that with just one debate, there will not be enough time to address all the issues, and that Hollande hopes to duck many of them.

But if Hollande’s party appeared cautious and slightly defensive on Sunday, Sarkozy is still far from confident.

Despite his tough stance on immigration, many Front National voters who defected to Sarkozy in 2007, returned to the FN this time around, disappointed with Sarkozy.

He will have a tough job wooing them back. Polls show many of them feel he failed to make a significant impact on law-and-order issues and, although he would blame the international economic situation, they are angry that purchasing power remains low.

Last night Sarkozy’s supporters immediately tried to push the questions of immigration and “French values” to the fore of debate.

Jean-François Copé, leader of Sarkozy’s UMP party, repeatedly asked Socialists on television to justify their plan to give foreign people outside the European Union the vote in French local elections – almost certainly a hugely unpopular idea among FN voters.

Sarkozy will also portray himself as a committed European who played a determining role in rescuing the eurozone from the brink but who will use those credentials to fight for France.

He is only too well aware that when the votes of far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon are added to those of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and some smaller candidates, about a third of the French electorate voted for some sort of protectionist or anti-European programme.

Expect much more of the same in the next two weeks and increasingly angry and hard-hitting campaigns from both sides.

Expect the name of Dominique Strauss-Kahn to surface again … Sarkozy supporters say they will not take lessons on presidential decorum from the party which was poised to pick DSK as their standardbearer before he was engulfed in scandal.

Although at least one poll on Monday still predicts a comfortable second round win for Hollande, it would be foolish to underestimate Sarkozy.

He is an extraordinary political animal with immense confidence in his abilities to convince what he calls the “silent majority”.

He has an appetite to give a bloody nose to France’s left-wing intellectuals, who, he insists, are completely out of touch and he is determined to be the only European political leader to survive in power despite the turbulent economic conditions.

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