Nicolas Sarkozy officially announced his candidacy for re-election during a televised appearance broadcast on TF1 last night. The decision hardly came as a surprise. UMP officials had kept tight-lipped about the President’s schedule, but his recent foray into Twitter and lengthy interview in Le Figaro on Sunday fuelled well-founded speculation in Paris. Sarkozy had hoped to delay the announcement until March, but it is believed that party officials’ exasperation and his unpopularity in the polls forced his hand. As Francois Hollande, election frontrunner and Socialist candidate slyly commented on Tuesday morning, “it seems [that the announcement] comes earlier than expected, don’t you think? Perhaps he believed it was a matter of urgency”.
What are his chances?
According to the latest polls by IFOP-Paris Match published just before the interview last night, Francois Hollande leads with 30%, followed by Sarkozy with 25.5%. Marine Le Pen, far-right candidate for the Front National ranks third place with 17.5% of voting intentions.
Historically, French presidents up for re-election rarely experience a boost in the opinion polls following the announcement of their candidacy. Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac each experienced slight increases in opinion polls, which were short-lived and generally failed to change the course of the election. Polling experts believe that Sarkozy would be lucky to experience a boost, since his announcement had been widely expected. As Jean-Marc Lech of polling institute Ipsos remarks “for the announcement to create an effect, it ought to surprise the electorate. But nothing [last night] was surprising, other than the exact date and the location of Sarkozy’s interview”.
Rivals for the Elysee dismissed the event. Le Pen called it a “non-event…of no political importance” and centrist candidate Francois Bayrou slammed Sarkozy’s time in office “his record speaks so much louder that anything he can say”, mocking the incumbent’s analogy of a captain refusing to abandon his ship, “when a captain has steered his ship onto rocks, it’s time for change”.
But historical precedents need not necessarily apply. In 2007 Sarkozy proved himself to be an expert campaigner, able to inject dynamism into the Elysee race, and capable of appealing to wide sections of the electorate. Recent positive figures on French growth (0.2% in the last quarter of 2011, compared to recession in the rest of the eurozone) could bolster the incumbent’s argument that he has the experience to lead an embattled France through the economic crisis.
On the whole though, this looks unlikely. Sarkozy has led an erratic unofficial campaign since January. The proposal to introduce reforms to the sclerotic French labour market last month was widely perceived as an electoral mistake. It is unpopular with the French, and is ill-timed, if necessary. Angela Merkel’s endorsement of his re-election was awkward, as it came weeks ahead of Sarkozy’s official announcement, and jars with his recent decision to appeal to Le Pen’s anti-euro, anti-German supporters. In addition, his pledge last night to “put work at the heart of everything” was too similar to his undelivered 2007 campaign promises.
It's argued that Sarkozy's real chance in re-election lies with Le Pen. If the FN candidate fails to secure the 500 mayoral nominations needed to present herself at the ballot, Sarkozy will benefit from a boost in support. Despite his pro-Euoprean stance, it is likely that far-right supporters will be wooed by promises of referendums on the rights of immigrants and the unemployed. This is something Sarkozy is aware of: tellingly, he refused to back Bayrou’s plea for a reform of the nomination system. A poll published earlier this month found that Sarkozy and Hollande would equalise in the first round if Le Pen did not run in the election. However, although this would provide Sarkozy with a boost in the first round, it wouldn't make a difference to his second round chances, where he continues to trail behind Hollande with 43% compared to the Socialist candidate's 57%. In all likelihood, Le Pen will not make it to the second round, so her inability to run on the ballot won't change Sarkozy's chances. Looks like Nicolas needs to try harder to win over the electorate.