x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

D-day for France's presidential rivals

Francois Hollande said voters had to decide whether to persevere with a project that had failed or opt for change. Nicolas Sarkozy warned against a socialist path that, he said, had brought misery to Greece, Spain and Portugal.

TOULON, FRANCE // France makes its choice today between five more years of Nicolas Sarkozy as president and a new era of socialist power under François Hollande.

Both protagonists in a bitter, hard-fought contest are 57, spent boyhood years in the affluent Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine and grew up with a driving ambition to become head of state.

Mr Sarkozy has achieved his goal. Now his rival has it within his sights after starting and ending the campaign as the favourite.

In their final rallying calls to supporters, the candidates retreated to familiar rhetorical territory.

Mr Hollande said voters had to decide whether to persevere with a project that had failed or opt for change. Mr Sarkozy warned against a socialist path that, he said, had brought misery to Greece, Spain and Portugal.

As the campaign officially closed, with no further opinion polls allowed after midnight on Friday, Mr Hollande was still ahead. But his opponent had recovered from the depths of unpopularity to clip his lead to five per cent, close enough to hearten supporters without affecting the left's belief that victory - and France's first socialist presidency since François Mitterrand's 14-year reign ended in 1995 - was imminent.

The media divided along predictable lines. For the left-of-centre Liberation, Mr Sarkozy is "more isolated than ever", his centre-right UMP privately resigned to defeat; the conservative daily Le Figaro heralded a "historic choice" between Mr Sarkozy's "coherence, energy and experience" and the danger of Mr Hollande and his "alliances", a reference to far-left pressures it believes he faces.

But what of the two men vying for power? Despite the coincidences of age, youthful haunts and political desire, they have followed different paths to the top.

Mr Sarkozy overcame educational stumbles to qualify as a lawyer and showed exceptional promise. He was also a precocious politician and, at 28, became the mayor of Neuilly.

By 1993, his combative skills and gift for oratory having impressed the Gaullist establishment, he was in government as budget minister.

In May of that year, he negotiated with a gunman who, calling himself the "human bomb", took children hostage in a Neuilly kindergarten. The man was later killed by a special police unit without any children coming to harm. Two decades on, Mr Sarkozy's role continues to split opinion along "help or hindrance" lines, but it demonstrated his taste for dramatic gestures.

Meanwhile, Mr Hollande was negotiating a more traditional career route. After graduating from the Sciences Po and the Ecole National d'Administration, breeding grounds for the French elite, he worked for Mr Mitterrand, made the south-western area of Corrèze his political heartland and proved a dependable Socialist Party MP and organiser.

As recently as 2007, when Ségolène Royal - his former partner and mother of their four children - stood against Mr Sarkozy, he seemed to lack charisma or stature. He also looked like a man who rather enjoyed his food. Five years later, it is a trimmer and sharper François Hollande who rattles the gates of the Elysée.

Mr Sarkozy may have pursued a flawed presidency, failing to live up to his billing as a bold reformer. But doubts persist about his adversary's suitability for the role. Bernadette Chirac, the wife of the former president, Jacques, said recently that Mr Hollande had good ideas but not a statesman's gravitas.

In foreign affairs, Mr Hollande has everything to prove.

Mr Sarkozy, who ultimately enjoyed a sound Arab Spring, who led international support for the Libyan revolution and against Syrian repression of dissent after a shaky start over Tunisia, mocks the gaps in his rival's experience.

He portrays himself as co-saviour, with the German chancellor Angela Merkel, of the euro - though many economic analysts fear salvation is far from complete - and the safe pair of hands France needs.

Mr Hollande, whose blander image may appeal to those disdainful of the president's brash, bruising style, admits he has much to learn but promises to do so more quickly than Mr Sarkozy.

Listing perceived Sarkozy failures, he highlights the warm Parisian welcomes accorded to the late Libyan dictator Col Muammar Qaddafi and the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, in 2007 and 2008.

He might have added lingering suspicion of involvement in the "Karachi affair", a saga of kickbacks from arms sales that allegedly aided the unsuccessful 1995 presidential bid of Edouard Balladur, for whom Mr Sarkozy was campaign spokesman. And there remains the allegations that the Qaddafi regime helped, or offered to help, bankroll his 2007 election campaign.

Mr Sarkozy indignantly protests his innocence. But these are sideshows. If there is one more feature that unites the two contenders, it is that both know voters will decide overwhelmingly on domestic issues. Which man can be trusted to deal with economic malaise, unemployment, insecurity, rising prices and immigration?

And as the two men await France's verdict, the outcome may depend on six million first-round supporters of another product of Neuilly-sur-Seine, the far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen. How many will switch allegiance to Mr Sarkozy and how many will follow her example, wish a plague on both houses and register blank votes?