French President Nicolas Sarkozy heads South and his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande goes East on the last day of campaigning before the first round of voting, courting supporters of other candidates whose backing they need in the runoff.
Hollande and Sarkozy are almost certain to top the 10- person field April 22, putting them into the May 6 decider. Hollande will be in the Ardennes region today, while Sarkozy holds a rally in Nice on the Mediterranean tonight. No campaigning is permitted tomorrow or on election day.
“It’s a foregone conclusion who will be in the second round,” said William Keylor, a professor of modern French history at Boston University, said in a telephone interview. “Now begins the not-always easy task of maintaining the base and appealing to the center.”
With the highest joblessness in 12 years and an economy barely growing, Sarkozy has trailed Hollande in every poll in a head-to-head match over the past 11 months. Hollande promises more spending and higher taxes, saying Sarkozy’s tax cuts worsened France’s finances and failed to create jobs. Sarkozy claims credit for spending cuts and a retirement-age increase that he says warded off the worst of the euro debt-crisis turmoil.
The winner faces commitments to the European Union to reduce debt and deficits. Government debt will exceed 90 percent of gross domestic product next year, the International Monetary Fund estimates. The IMF sees a deficit of 3.9 percent of GDP next year -- while Sarkozy has promised to reach the EU limit of 3 percent -- and growth of 1 percent.
“Post the election, Hollande probably moves toward the center,” Stephane Deo, the chief European economist for UBS Securities in London, said in a note to investors April 17. “Whoever wins is going to have to start talking honestly about how to tackle the deficits and debt levels.”
Polls this week showed Hollande, 57, with a lead in a head- to-head match of at least eight points and as much as 16 over the incumbent, who is finishing his first five-year term.
A BVA poll released April 18 showed Hollande will win 29.5 percent in the first round and Sarkozy 27.5 percent. The anti- immigrant National Front’s Marine Le Pen would get 14 percent, anti-capitalist Jean-Luc Melenchon 13 percent, and self-styled centrist Francois Bayrou 12 percent. Five others would total 4 percent. The poll of 1,161 people had a margin of error of 2.5 percent. Sarkozy, 57, risks becoming the first incumbent not to win the first round.
The scores of Hollande and Sarkozy have varied only a few points in the past month. “There’s been a remarkable stability throughout the campaign,” said Jean-Daniel Levy, director of opinion research at Harris Interactive in France. “Sarkozy has made several efforts to shake things up, but we haven’t seen it generate any momentum.”
A CSA Institute survey also released April 18 showed that only 27 percent think that Sarkozy will triumph in the runoff.
“The real key of the first round is not who crosses the finish line first but the overall balance between votes for the right and the left,” Gael Sliman, director of BVA, said in e- mailed comments. “From this point of view, the Socialist candidate should have important reserves for the second round.”
The first-round leader has won five of France’s eight direct presidential elections, dating back to 1965.
Hollande leads Sarkozy in what the French call “reserves,” or likely support from among the also-rans.
While 85 percent of Melenchon voters will vote for Hollande in the second round, only 54 percent of Le Pen’s supporters are sure to go for Sarkozy, according to a BVA poll April 17. Bayrou’s support splits 39 percent for Hollande and 25 percent for Sarkozy. The rest were undecided.
Hollande, who was party leader from 1997 to 2008 and represents a rural district in the parliament, would be the first Socialist president since Francois Mitterrand in 1995. He has never held a minister’s post.
He has proposed a 75 percent tax on the wealthiest, an increase in the minimum wage, renegotiating European treaties on deficit limits to promote growth, and banning leveraged buyouts.
Sarkozy has stressed personal responsibility, security, and national identity to chip away at support for the National Front. He has sought centrists by saying speculators will attack French bonds should Hollande be elected. While Standard & Poor’s cut France from AAA this year, the country’s debt has kept the top grade from other credit-rating firms.
“It is particularly difficult to know from either Hollande or Sarkozy what are political rhetoric and electioneering and what are true commitments,” said Marc Chandler, chief currency strategist at Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. in New York.
A Sarkozy ouster would follow those by leaders in Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Italy, Spain, Slovenia and Slovakia since the debt crisis began, and make him the second French president after Valery Giscard D’Estaing in 1981 to lose a re-election bid. Sarkozy’s 36 percent approval rating in an April 15 Ifop poll is the lowest for any post-World War II French president.
In the final days of campaigning, both Hollande and Sarkozy have backed a more activist European Central Bank. That risks tensions with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The comments by Sarkozy also broke a pledge by Sarkozy and Merkel last November not to publicly comment about the ECB.
“The candidates’ views on European matters have converged over the past few weeks,” Thomas Costerg, an economist at Standard Chartered Bank in London, wrote in an e-emailed comment. “We think fears of a Franco-German rift are overdone. The solid Franco-German relationship goes beyond party politics.”
While about 70 of voters have told pollsters they are sure of their choice, that doesn’t mean the campaign has thrilled them. As many as a quarter of registered voters may not vote, said a BVA poll April 6, which would be the second-highest abstention rate in a French presidential election.
“With high unemployment and France’s loss of its triple-A rating, Sarkozy doesn’t have much of a record to run on,” Boston’s Keylor said. “But Hollande has never even held a ministerial position. He doesn’t have much charisma. For many voters, it’s a question of the lesser of two evils.”
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