Does this man look like a French President?

Obviously not, but the Socialist François Hollande led the first round of voting in the French presidential elections yesterday with 28.63% of the vote to the right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy’s 27.18%; the result means the two will go into the second round run-off on 6 May.  With the far-right Marine Le Pen taking nearly 18% of the vote — most of which, one imagines, will migrate to Sarkozy — it might appear Sarkozy has a chance in the second round but, as Sasha Issenberg points out in Slate, this is the first time in French history that the incumbent has failed to lead the first round of voting.

I was in Paris for the last couple weeks and the most striking aspect of the election campaign was how little attention was paid to it.  Five years ago, if I’d been French I would have voted for Sarkozy, despite our ideological incompatibility and his sometimes bombastic tone against what the French call immigrants but which often means French-born citizens of foreign-born parents — or even, sometimes, grandparents.  The risk with Sarkozy, at the time, was that he was so transparently ambitious and preposterously egotistical that he might prove unserious, but a great many French people I knew (including many who generally voted left rather than right) thought he just might be the man to shake up French politics.  His first term, alas, demonstrated that Sarkozy is more unserious than anyone could have imagined — the highlight, if it can be called that, of his first year was the hunting of his now wife Carla Bruni, in which Sarkozy believed himself the hunter and everyone else understood he was the prey — and that there was no policy vision behind his outlandish theatrics.  Today, everyone is fed up with him.  In an interview Sarkozy gave while I was in Paris he promised to be a ‘different’ President if re-elected, which is the feeblest second-term pitch I have ever heard.

Then there is Hollande: drab, dreary François with his sad accountant’s eyes and deeply un-rousing speechmaking style, ex-partner of Ségolène Royal, the woman Sarkozy defeated in 2007, and a man even the Socialist Party faithful find uninspiring.  I was handed the election manifesto above by a Hollande campaigner in Place de la Bastille — among other things, that means this portrait is thought by his campaign team to flatter their candidate — which is thick with proposed policy changes no French person believes will ever come to pass.  Walking around Paris there is scant evidence of a national economy on the edge of free fall but it is widely understood that the most severe austerity measures lie just ahead, waiting for whoever wins the election, and that they will so severely constrain the policy options for years to come that it hardly matters whether the right or the left is in power.

The problem is this: now is the moment, even more than five years ago, when France needs to be shaken from its political torpor but Sarkozy long ago used up whatever faith there was in the French electorate that a single, restless figure thrust into the Elysée might achieve that.  So we are left with Hollande, a man who by any measure appears inadequate to the challenge ahead yet is, at least, not Nicolas Sarkozy.

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