Guest slot on the French Election by Tim Jones
Itâ€™s a remarkable testament to Londonâ€™s pulling power, French failings and how European politics are running to catch with the blasting open of the continentâ€™s labour markets. Tonight, London is experiencing a first: an election rally by a French presidential candidate.
It makes sense for Nicolas Sarkozy, the official candidate of the ruling UMP conservative coalition, to come looking for votes in a tight race. Out of a much larger number, more than 100,000 French citizens are registered in the UK and every vote will count.
My more pessimistic contacts on the French right remain convinced that their standard bearer will fail to dent the comforting, painless-change candidacy of socialist SÃ©golÃ¨ne Royal but Iâ€™m increasingly convinced sheâ€™s already fluffed it.
As someone who started putting money on her at 13.0 back in November 2005 and chased her down to 5.50, I should be be keeping this quiet and hedging the lot at Betfairâ€™s generous 2.12. But I wonâ€™t just in case since, as a partisan for Sarkozy, the winnings would be the only compensation if she pulled it off in the second round on May 6.
Fortunately, Iâ€™ll probably lose my shirt. Her lamentable performance since the campaign proper began two weeks ago makes this unlikely.
The seven polls published since Sarkozy was selected as her opponent on January 14 have shown a marked puncturing of her previously strong support. The culmination was the BVA poll conducted January 22-23, which not only shows her losing 52%/48% to Sarkozy in the second round but reveals a severe 8-point drop in her first-round tally to 27%.
When I wrote about her here in June, I warned that her ratings were vulnerable because â€œshe has to continue alienating nobody for 11 long, long monthsâ€. With the spotlight now on her and Sarkozy and no one else, she can no longer hide the gaping hole at the centre of her policy programme.
It was this void that FranÃ§ois Hollande, the PS leader, tried to fill by promising to make anyone earning more than â‚¬4,000 net per month pay wealth tax. Royal, keen to keep the aspiring middle class on board, dismissed the proposal from the father of her children and hastily put together a taskforce to devise a fiscal plan.
Not only did this reveal she didnâ€™t have a plan even though she had the chutzpah to stand for president but the ensuing debate led to the revelation that the Hollande-Royal household (households, as it turned out) itself pays wealth tax â€“ a shocking notion for many socialists.
It gets worse. In her attempt to steer clear of awkward domestic debates, Royal has ventured disastrously into foreign policy. She began by travelling to China and Lebanon in a bid to look presidential. Unfortunately, the headlines she made back home were about her unwitting agreement with a Hezbollah politician who compared the Israelis with Nazis and her praise for Chinaâ€™s speedy justice system.
Itâ€™s speedy alright, said Sarkozyâ€™s defence spokesman Pierre Lellouche, because China is â€œfar and away the world champion in capital punishmentâ€. She caused a diplomatic incident with Canada by appearing to advocate Quebecâ€™s independence and then, in what she thought was a confidential phonecall with Quebecâ€™s premier, joked that Corsica too should be independent. Oh, and this future commander in chief miscalculated by a factor of ten the number of nuclear-armed French submarines. Elections arenâ€™t won or lost over foreign policy but itâ€™s no coincidence that BVA found only 29% of respondents believing Royal had â€œpresidential statureâ€ versus 60% for Sarkozy.
Sarkozyâ€™s political vulnerabilities have been well-aired. He has alienated young voters through his law-and-order image; he is unapologetically pro-American and made the mistake of being photographed shaking Bushâ€™s hand; above all, people know he will shake up Franceâ€™s labour market.
But ironically, it is these very weaknesses that make him hard for Royal to beat. The French know this man and his policies inside out and yet he consistently commands around 50% of second-round voting intentions. People know nothing about Royal except that sheâ€™s an attractive, articulate woman. As her policies and missteps emerge, she will alienate either the socialist core vote or the centrist floaters.