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Sarkozy humiliated in first-round ballot

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- a.k.a. Le President Bling-Bling -- has been humiliated.

His second-place showing in Sunday's presidential elections makes him the first president running for re-election in France to fail to win the first round of voting since the start of the Fifth Republic in 1958.

The implications for France and for Europe's future are significant. It could spell the end to 17 years of centrist and conservative rule in France and mark the return of a socialist government.

But more importantly, it may mark the beginning of a bitter new European-wide debate over economic policy.

Faced with staggering economies, uncertainty over the euro and a weariness with bailouts, France and Europe are bracing for a fight over debts and deficits, with the right advocating spending cuts and austerity and the left pushing to raise taxes.

If Francois Hollande, Sunday's successful Socialist candidate, becomes president following a second round of voting May 6, it might mark a crucial turning point in the eurozone crisis.

Hollande, a mild-mannered regional governor, who won his party's nomination practically by default after Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former finance minister and IMF chief was involved in a string of sordid sex scandals, is committed to reversing the economic course Sarkozy set over the last five years.

He says he will increase government spending, reduce the length of the work week and lower the age for pension eligibility, raise the minimum wage and impose a 75 per cent tax rate on anyone earning more than a million euros a year.

That is going to create strains with Germany, whose Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly endorsed Sarkozy's re-election mainly because he supported her arguments to curb government spending, reduce debt and insist austerity must precede economic growth in Europe.

Sarkozy has put more emphasis on spending cuts, reducing taxes and liberalizing the labour market.

First elected president in May 2007 on a pro-American platform that promised to break with many of the traditions of French politics, Sarkozy came to power in a run-off election against Segolene Royal, the first woman to have a legitimate shot at winning the French presidency.

During the 2007 election, Royal was the then partner of Hollande. They lived together for 30 years and had four children together, but separated acrimoniously shortly after Royal lost the presidential election.

Sarkozy and Royal now share roughly the same opinion of Hollande. During the fight for the Socialist party presidential nomination, Royal depicted her former lover as soft and indecisive and bitterly asked: "Can anyone recall anything that Francois Hollande has done in 30 years?"

But as recently as April 4 she insisted: "I don't doubt that Francois will be our next president."

The reason for Hollande's electoral success may be rooted in France's dislike of Sarkozy's brash "hyper-presidency."

French voters have almost instinctively rebelled against his flashy style, his sweeping reforms, his stormy divorce, tabloid romance with Italian heiress Carla Bruni and his Hungarian surname.

He came to power promising to shake things up; he dumped the 35-hour work week, reduced pension benefits, revamped the university system and was met with massive demonstrations. He promised to be different and appointed a cabinet that included Socialists, women and the daughter of North African immigrants as his minister of justice.

But in the end, Sarkozy promised far more than he could ever deliver.

In 2007, he came to power promising to rejuvenate the economy and "rehabilitate the value of work." But for the last four years he has had to deal with economic and financial crises that have lowered the living standards of millions and given France its highest unemployment levels in 12 years.

The result is an electorate that is increasingly disenchanted with politics and politicians, but eager for change.

In spite of predictions of a low voter turnout on Sunday, up to 80 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots. Their disenchantment expressed itself in a strong showing by the left and a surge in support for the extremes of French politics.

Hollande finished the first-round voting with 28.5 per cent of the vote; Sarkozy had 27.1 per cent; Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front had 18.2; Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Left Front had 11.1 and centrist Francois Bayrou had 9.1. The remaining five candidates had minimal support.

Most experts and opinion polls suggest Sarkozy's poor showing in the first round means he will have a hard time winning the May 6 run-off. Some opinion polls that measure second-round preferences suggest Hollande could win by a landslide, defeating Sarkozy by more than 10 per cent on May 6.

Sarkozy has only two weeks to turn things around and needs to win the support of voters who originally voted for Le Pen or Bayrou. Given Le Pen's strong showing, he may have to focus more on appealing to the far right, which could have a rebound effect, driving more moderate voters to Hollande.

Belatedly, Sarkozy has called for a series of three television debates with Hollande, hoping to use the confrontations to sharpen the choices facing French voters. But, Hollande, sitting comfortably in the lead, has said he is satisfied with the traditional single debate scheduled before the second round of voting.

In a last desperate bid for support, Sarkozy may seek to modify his image. Last Friday, on the last day of campaigning before Sunday's vote, he apologized to voters during an RTL radio interview.

"Perhaps the mistake I made at the start of my mandate is not understanding the symbolic dimension of the president's role and not being solemn enough in my acts," he said. "A mistake for which I would like to apologize or explain myself and which I will not make again. Now, I know the job."

He may not get the chance to demonstrate that new understanding until he writes his memoirs.

 

Peter Goodspeed is a columnist

for the National Post.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 24, 2012 A6

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