French presidential elections: Sarkozy copies Mitterrand

So it’s official: French president Nicolas Sarkozy has still not announced he is running for re-election. At first, it was thought he might do so during last night’s hour-long TV interview, broadcast on no less than eight different channels, including France 24. But as Sunday approached, it became clear that we would have to wait a little longer for the incumbent to throw his hat into the ring. “It will not be the announcement of Nicolas Sarkozy’s candidacy for the presidential election”, Sarkozy’s spin doctor Franck Louvrier told Le Monde newspaper on Friday, referring to the interview. And indeed it was not.


Instead, we got a flurry of announcements on the economic front, no doubt set to be the last batch of reforms of Sarkozy’s five-year mandate. His apparent strategy: to show the French people that he is fully focused on battling the economic crisis, and not distracted by frivolous campaigning, but all the while carrying out a pseudo-campaign by - precisely - getting on with his rather important job. However, in a clear message to those in his centre-right UMP party who are exasperated with this waiting game, he declared: “I have a rendezvous with the French; I will not shy away from it”.


Indeed, it is no doubt only a matter of time before Sarkozy, elected in May 2007, will officially announce his bid to be president for five more years. As he said himself last night, he only has until March 16th to do so. But in the meantime, he wants to remain presidential for as long as possible.


The wait certainly seems excruciating to French journalists (especially those of us who work in 24-hour newsrooms) and politicians of all stripes. The opposition Socialists, for example, are infuriated that the taxpayer, and not the UMP party, is still paying for Sarkozy’s many jaunts across the country and ensuing speeches.


During an hour-long TV interview on Sunday night, French President Nicolas Sarkozy only hinted he would stand for re-election. (Photo: AFP).


In light of all this, I became curious about Sarkozy’s predecessors: did they also wait this long before declaring their intentions?


What I found confirms that we really do have short memories in this business. Let's bear in mind that the presidential elections are held in April (for the first round) and May (for the run-off). Jacques Chirac, who was first elected in 1995, announced his re-election bid for 2002 on February 11th of that year. As for François Mitterrand, first elected in 1981, he threw his hat into the ring even later for his re-election in 1988, on March 22nd of that year! As we know, both men were re-elected. This strategy of maintaining the suspense as long as possible is therefore far from uncommon for a sitting president, and clearly pays off. In fact, the mayor of Marseille and Sarkozy ally, Jean-Claude Gaudin, said last September that he thought Sarkozy should take a leaf out of Mitterrand’s book by not declaring his candidacy “hastily”, which “worked out well for him (Mitterrand)”. According to today’s edition of Libération newspaper, Sarkozy is now expected to announce his re-election bid in early March.


However, the real question is whether the sitting president can catch up with his Socialist challenger François Hollande in the opinion polls once he finally makes the big announcement - Sarkozy has been lagging behind in the polls for months. According to the latest survey for Paris Match published today, Hollande would win the run-off in May with 57.5% of votes, beating Sarkozy’s 42.5%, a considerable margin.


For now, Hollande certainly has the wind in his sails, especially after his appearance on French TV last Thursday night. Putting in a solid performance when quizzed by a succession of journalists, he also managed to give as good as he got when debating with quick-witted Foreign Minister Alain Juppé (a surreal consequence of Sarkozy not having declared his candidacy). On Friday evening, Les Guignols de l’Info, a satirical TV show with puppets, showed Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara arriving at the Elysée palace on his state visit. “Welcome to France, Mr Ouattara”, says Sarkozy, flanked by Juppé. “Yes, yes…is François Hollande not there?” asks Ouattara. At which point Sarkozy turns to his foreign minister and says: “Were you that bad last night, Alain?”

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