French exchange?

Thaddeus Best considers whether Nicolas Sarkozy, the Élysée Palace incumbent, can survive France's upcoming presidential elections

With less than two months to go before France's presidential elections, Nicolas Sarkozy faces an unprecedented challenge. Socialist party candidate François Hollande is currently leading by a margin of around ten points and Sarkozy is trailing by a margin wider than any presidential candidate in French post-war history has ever managed to recover from. With domestic unemployment at a 12-year high, Sarkozy's campaign for re-election is looking like it needs a miracle to succeed. As a recent New Yorker editorial pointed out, Sarkozy began as the Fifth Republic's most popular president, but is now its least popular.

Model candidate?

Sarkozy's relationship with the French electorate has always been a complex one. His father was a Hungarian aristocrat and his mother of Greek Jewish descent and Sarkozy is often viewed as something of a parvenu (one who has suddenly risen in status, but who is yet to be accepted) on the French political scene. Educated at Université Paris X Nanterre rather than the École Nationale d'Administration - France's finishing school for senior civil service officials as well as several heads of state including Chirac and Giscard - even Sarkozy's education has been regarded with a degree of snobbery in France, whose presidents have generally been made from very particular moulds. Nicknamed "le Président Bling-Bling" for his ostentatious style by the media in a nation with a hang-up about money (a legacy, some say, of its strict Catholic tradition) and married to former model Carla Bruni, "Sarko" has been a controversial leader.

His popularity has slumped recently as the eurozone sovereign debt crisis continues to threaten the EU, in which France has invested so much political capital over recent decades. However, his track record in international affairs is good in some respects, for example, his handling of the French intervention in Libya. But his achievements in domestic matters are arguably limited. After the 2008 economic meltdown, Sarkozy promised to reform and modernise the French economy, setting out to moderate the country's long-held "dirigiste" (centralised) tradition, introducing a range of new initiatives in areas ranging from industrial policy to economic regulation. Three years on, the extent to which his reforms have been successful remains questionable.

He barely managed to raise the pension age two years higher to 62 and layers of bureaucracy continue to stifle the economy. Unemployment is currently at nearly 10 per cent and youth unemployment is nearly twice that. The French economy is slowing down, with France expected to enter a mild recession in 2012, and the country has been stripped of its AAA credit rating by rating agency Standard and Poor's. .

Grand finale

French Socialist party candidate Hollande - who succeeded the previous presidential favourite Dominique Strauss-Kahn after the now infamous New York hotel room scandal which took him out the running - could not be more of a contrast to Sarkozy. Nicknamed "Flanby" after a gelatinous French dessert by his fellow MPs, Hollande is a far cry from the flamboyant Sarkozy. While perceived by the electorate as a likeable, albeit rather dull and cautious, candidate, Hollande has so far maintained his position as frontrunner. Campaigning from a textbook socialist platform, advocating higher taxation on the wealthy and greater investment in small businesses, and taking a staunchly anti-finance approach, Hollande appears to have struck a chord with the French electorate at a time when their nation's economic and social model appears to be in crisis.

Hollande has also sought to turn Sarkozy's handling of the eurozone rescue against him, depicting his relationship with Merkel as one of subservience, claiming the president panders to the Germans and fails to protect France's best interests on the world stage. The Socialist candidate has railed against plans for a fiscal compact, announcing his intentions to reopen discussions with Germany on the issue, which would jeopardise months of careful negotiation work. While there is no doubt that many of his assertions are just grandstanding aimed at increasing his popularity within his own party, there's a strong chance that such rhetoric coming from the presidential front-runner so close to election time could trigger a serious loss of market confidence in France, placing both France's and the eurozone's futures in danger.

Right on

However, it's not just from the political left that Sarkozy is facing competition. With little room to manoeuvre to the left or centre ground, currently occupied by Hollande and François Bayrou (in fourth position) respectively, Sarkozy is likely to turn his attentions to stealing back support from the right of the political spectrum, wooing voters with a hard-line stance against immigration. But the fallout from the eurozone crisis has triggered a fresh wave of nationalist and neo-mercantile sentiment which has seen far-right party Front National candidate Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie, soar into third position in the polls. While her support has fallen back in recent weeks, at one point in 2011 she had more support than Sarkozy.

But Sarkozy has continued to strive to portray himself as a confident and able statesman, capable of steering the country through these turbulent times, as well as possessing the strength of will to push through the economic, political and social reforms that France requires. And despite a second presidential term looking currently out of reach, it would be unwise to discount entirely a man who has overcome the odds more often than not - he married Carla Bruni, after all.