France´s vote on Sarkozy the bully

30.04.07 Publication:

The second-round vote in France’s presidential elections will, in effect, be a referendum on Nicolas Sarkozy. But surely that was also true of the first round, since Sarkozy was the clearest, most experienced, most obviously able (Segolene Royal may well be able, but it is less obvious) but also most polarising of the mainstream candidates. With two weeks now to go, it would be foolish to predict the result with any pretence of certainty. Yet the odds do look clear: if Royal does overtake Sarkozy, it will be a big surprise. It is her climb that is an uphill one, far more than Sarkozy’s.

            Yes, Royal won the biggest first-round vote for the left since Mitterrand. But Sarkozy’s vote was the biggest first-round vote for the centre-right since Valery Giscard d’Estaing in 1974. The votes for the fringe left candidates were low, just as Jean-Marie Le Pen’s vote was low by his previous standards. The rise of Francois Bayrou was a slap in the face for Sarkozy, showing as it did that he did not command the instinctive support of everyone in the centre or on the right. But who now has the best chance to take a majority of that 18.3% slice of the voters, plus a goodly chunk of Le Pen’s 11.5%, if they turn out to vote a second time? The betting has to be on Sarkozy.

            It is a referendum on him that he has every chance of winning. The reason for describing it as a referendum is that unlike Royal, Sarkozy has a programme much of which he can be expected to try to implement and he has a governing style that is well known. He is energetic, publicity-hungry, manipulative, outspoken and, yes, abrasive. In fact, an even better term than abrasive might be that he is a bully: he is well known for getting his way through threats and tantrums.

            That reputation might, of course, be an exaggeration by the media and by his opponents. But it is a firm part of his image. And there are enough stories about it to make it feel credible. I have one such small story of my own. A couple of years ago The Economist arranged a debate in Paris, in front of about 300 subscribers, between Sarkozy and me, around the question of whether France is reformable. The terms and procedures for the debate were negotiated painstakingly with his chef de cabinet. Then Sarkozy turned up five minutes before the event was due to begin and threw a tantrum: he had just discovered he was in a debate, he claimed, moreover a debate with a journalist, of all things. This was outrageous, impossible! The great Sarko debates only with politicians! He had to be calmed down. The procedures had to be talked through once more. He was reminded that in the adjoining room 300 French voters were waiting for the event to begin. He had to be given the time to call his chef de cabinet on the phone and give him a rather theatrical bollocking. And then the debate went ahead, as planned, with Sarkozy the epitome of charm. In his view, he had shown us who was boss.

            The question for France is: do you want such a person as boss, ie, president? He will be a bully, a thrower of tantrums. My guess, and it can only be that, is that a majority will decide to take the risk. The French system contains enough checks and balances to prevent a bullying president from turning into an elected dictator, especially with the national assembly elections due in June and offering an immediate chance to quell the new president’s power.