"Would you write a personal piece on why you still like Sarkozy?” an editor at the London Telegraph asked me the other day. By that time our sitting president was not only trailing in polls for the second and decisive round, he’d even started taking a drubbing from the steadfast tortoise in the race, the Socialist contender François Hollande, in predictions for the first round. This is the free-for-all in which a flurry of candidates (ten this year, five of them completely irrelevant) slug it out two weeks before the serious business of the runoff between the top two votegetters.
Sarkozy was given up for lost; it was as good a time as any to declare a preference. I said sure, and dashed off a 600-word opinion piece on why I would be sorry to see the end of Sarko—a plain-speaking realist who’d refused to lie to or cosset the French. The paper slapped on an enticing headline (“Nicolas Sarkozy is a victim of his own courage”) and up it went on the Saturday morning before the vote, not that any readers of the Torygraph, as it’s dubbed, were very likely either to cast a ballot in France, or to be pro-Hollande to begin with. I myself put up a link on my Facebook page (we journos tend to self-advertise).
Next thing you know, cousins I hadn’t spoken to in years started emailing me, outraged. My entire family, which gave a couple of Socialist senators and a Popular Front cabinet minister (my grandfather) to France, is staunchly left-wing on two continents; but until now we’d managed to keep things pretty civilized. By this I mean obligatory jokes at family reunions on how there must have been a mixup in the maternity ward for a conservative cuckoo of my ilk to fall among this brace of liberal doves, after which we’d all sit down to eat.
Not this time. The gloves were off, mirroring the anti-Sarkozy frenzy that has seized France in ways that make Bush Derangement Syndrome look like afternoon tea in an Edith Wharton novel. I should be ashamed, ashamed, to support a man who’d betrayed every single human right dear to France with his immigration policies. (Sarkozy has dared to send illegal Roma migrants back to Eastern Europe: on Air France flights, paying each adult an extra 300 euros bonus, and 100 euros per child. This was said at the time by the Luxembourg-born European Commissioner Viviane Reding to constitute “a disgrace” reminiscent of deportations during “the Second World War.”)
Sarkozy was “uncouth, vulgar, money-obsessed, dictatorial”; my poor parents must be “turning in their graves” at the outrageous, sycophantic statements I was “forcing the public” (and the family) to read. Worse, I had dared suggest that Sarkozy showed some of the spirit of the Resistance in his efforts to be true to French identity and history. There followed some spirited exchanges—François Hollande, himself blameless, started his career as an aide in Mitterrand’s Elysée and has never thought it necessary to comment on the revelations of his erstwhile boss’s unsavory Vichy past and acolytes—which proved that my family has an unerring instinct for, if not necessarily the zeitgeist, at least the following day’s headlines.
The first round results on April 22 showed a narrower gap than expected between Hollande (28.6 percent) and Sarkozy (27.2 percent), but the real surprise came from Marine Le Pen’s robust 18 percent showing, 4 points above what the pollsters had predicted for the National Front leader. It was obvious that Sarkozy would have to woo a good chunk of her voters to have a prayer in the runoff. (So would Hollande, who sent out his former partner Ségolène Royal to coo that the “suffering” of Le Pen’s voters should “be listened to”—to no outrage whatsoever.) L’Humanité, the hard left daily, ran a cover pairing Sarko with Pétain, the Nazi collaborator.
The French mainstream media, apart from a few cloyingly ingratiating outfits like Le Figaro and Paris Match, are overwhelmingly liberal; and journalists even more so. The French press all too often give the impression of having only two settings: servile or belligerent. Nowhere was this more in evidence than last January, at the quaint New Year’s cocktail party given at the Elysée for us reptiles. (Traditionally, most of January is taken up by a series of parties in which representatives of a special class—diplomats, the press, members of parliament, the unions, etc.—get to quaff excellent champagne and try to catch the president’s attention after he’s made a formal speech duly reported in the media.)
No dupe, Sarkozy started his formal address by suggesting, in quasi-Nixon fashion, that we soon might not have him to kick around any more, and praised “the vitality of our democracy, where the press is so free that it doesn’t have to remain impartial.” Still, when he came down from the dais to mingle with us, there was the usual undignified scrum to attract his attention and bask in the distinction of exchanging a few words with him (his security detail is fairly laid back compared with the Secret Service). It was then still unclear how the election would go. You could tell when his poll figures started going south: Suddenly Sarkozy’s TV interviewers began following up on questions, American style.
Now there is blood in the water. Besides the media, some of Sarkozy’s less loyal cabinet hires have gone over to the Hollande camp. Doubts in his own campaign team are rampant—many worry about the legislative elections in June, fearing their association with Sarkozy will cost them their seats. “It’s finished, all done for,” one Sarkozyste Parisian assembly member told me. He was considering ditching his party affiliation for a less compromising centrist tag.
There’s only one fighter left in Sarkozy’s camp, it would seem, and that’s Sarkozy himself. He has psyched himself like the runner he is, and believes he can triangulate his way to a victory by convincing both a majority of Le Pen’s voters and enough of the fractured centrists remaining from the lackluster performance of François Bayrou, a former education minister who polled a little over 8 percent. Faced with the overwhelming rejection of the Parisian establishment, Sarkozy has one week left to reinvent himself as the improbable challenger of a slightly too complacent Hollande, who’s already picking his cabinet.
On paper, Sarkozy’s gamble might just succeed, although it’s not terribly likely. Hollande has campaigned as the “normal” candidate (to which Sarkozy scoffed: “There’s nothing normal about this job”). The only true passion sustaining Hollande is the desire of enough of the French to see the back of Sarkozy, whose style they abominate even though many of them acknowledge he’s not performed badly in the economic crisis. On Sunday night, May 6, I’ll know if my own family were accurately attuned to the country’s mood. It is entirely possible. Then again, I would love to see their faces if Sarko pulls it off.
Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a columnist for the London Telegraph and a commentator for the BBC.