French voters go to the polls Sunday for the first round of presidential elections with two top contenders dominating the campaigning, incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party candidate.
Sarkozy is running for a second term, and many analysts say he is facing an uphill battle. After five years in office, he is seen by many French voters as not delivering on his promises of cutting government spending, increasing wages and creating more jobs.
“He sees himself as the candidate of economic growth,” said John Merriman, an expert on France at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. “But in fact, the results of his presidency have not been marked by any economic growth at all.
“It still has a very high unemployment rate, young people particularly – educated young people, uneducated young people – the level of unemployment is very, very high,” Merriman said. “And this is going to work against Sarkozy.”
The latest statistics show more than 20 percent of France’s young people are unemployed, more than twice the overall unemployment rate.
Merriman and others say Sarkozy, married to former super-model Carla Bruni, has alienated many people because of his lavish life-style.
“He gives the impression that all he really cares about is big yachts and big trips and big restaurants and big money,” said Merriman.
In an effort to counter that perception, Bruni told several French news outlets: “We are modest people.”
Dominique Moisi, senior adviser to the French Institute for International Affairs in Paris, points to some of Sarkozy’s accomplishments.
“Resisting the financial and economic crisis. Being at the helm of the European presidency of the Union at the worst time and sustaining the high winds. Starting to reform France on retirement age and the university system. And intervening and making a difference in the Ivory Coast and Libya.”
Moisi said Sarkozy’s message to voters should be simple: “You need me. Help me save you because the winds are going to be even tougher. You need someone with experience. In fact, any other candidate would be dangerous for you because he would lack the experience I’ve had.”
Sarkozy’s main challenger, Hollande, is a veteran politician who has never held a national government position. A graduate of the prestigious National School of Administration, Hollande has been a member of the National Assembly since the late 1980s and secretary-general of the Socialist Party.
Hollande, according to Moisi, is “a discreet person, a man who says: ‘you must vote for me because I’m normal.’ But as a result, the French may not only find him normal, but slightly banal.
“He is not charismatic – that’s the least one can say,” Moisi concluded. “But he is reasonable, serious and, in fact, friendly.”
Hollande’s political platform includes raising taxes on the very rich, freezing fuel prices, increasing welfare payments and hiring 60,000 new teachers. He has called for 75 percent tax on France’s richest people.
His ex-partner, and the mother of his four children, is Segolene Royal. She was the Socialist Party presidential candidate in 2007, but lost to Sarkozy. She has endorsed Hollande this time around.
There are eight other candidates for the French presidency, including far-right Marine Le Pen, far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon and centrist Francois Bayrou.
No one is expected to get the 50 percent necessary to win outright in the first round of balloting this Sunday. This will mean that the two top vote-getters will face each other in a second round of voting scheduled for May 6.
Public opinion surveys show Sarkozy and Hollande are expected to make it through to the second round.