As a reality television series, it’s hard to beat the prime-time adventures of the French presidential election; as endless as the Republican primaries, but racier than Snooki's antics on “Jersey Shore”. This ought to give pause to anyone who is relying on Parisian politics to save the European Union.
To ensure that the Élysée Palace is inhabited occasionally by bigamists (François Mitterand), megalomaniacs (Charles de Gaulle), diamond smugglers (Valéry d’Estaing), or influence peddlers (Jacques Chirac), the presidential electoral system works like this: In the first round on April 22nd, candidates from a diverse number of parties across the spectrum will face off. If none of the candidates get more than 50 percent of the vote (unlikely), a runoff is then held two weeks later, featuring the top two finishers of round one.
In the current cycle, the major candidates are President Nicolas Sarkozy (right of center; best imagined as a tough detective on “Law and Order”), François Hollande (socialist; looks like Seinfeld’s friend George Costanza), Marine Le Pen (far-right nationalist; uses the word deportation as a noun, verb, adjective, and term of endearment), François Beyrou (centrist; keen on the moral purity of centrism), and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (far left; speaks for those whom Le Pen would deport).
According to the latest polls, which are notoriously inaccurate, Sarkozy should pull the most votes in the first round—followed by Hollande, Mélenchon, Le Pen, and Bayrou—but not enough to win outright.
Enthusiasm for Hollande is tepid, and hardline voters, fearing he is a margarine socialist, might ditch him to vote for the florid, far left candidate, Mélenchon, although it is doubtful that Mélenchon would ever place second. In the runoff, if Sarkozy were to face Hollande, the forecasts are that the socialist candidate would beat the standing president, 54 - 46 percent.
Campaigning in France takes place on nightly news programs that feature breathless, non-stop reports about the day’s political events. Sarkozy loves big indoor rallies in halls that look like Madison Square Garden, where only his supporters are admitted. They madly wave “La France Forte” placards (“For a Strong France”), while he denounces illegal immigration, Islamic terrorists, and economic stagnation. He has even campaigned against himself, saying, if re-elected, he would be “a different president.”
The mundane facts of the campaign don't explain why the election has become a prime-time drama, with most talk shows spending hours on the candidates’ love lives or on the scandal of the week.
When he ran for president in 2007, Sarko was married to Cécelia Sarkozy. They met when, as mayor of Neuilly in Paris, he officiated at her first wedding. Three years later, they were a couple.
During the presidential campaign in 2007, however, she told one interviewer that perhaps she might not vote. After her husband won, she acted bored at the thought of moving into the Élysée Palace (“all those rooms and servants...”), and famously blew off a Bush family cookout at Kennebunkport when she found out that it would involve spending the day with her husband.
Those Sarkozys divorced. Cécelia said Sarko conceived of political office as a platform on which to seduce women, including some not dressed up as brides. Sarko brooded for about an afternoon and then took up with the singer, songwriter, and supermodel fashionista Carla Bruni, who sees herself as this generation’s Jacqueline Kennedy.
Not to be outdone on “How the President Met Your Mother,” François Hollande has four children with Ségolène Royal, the socialist party candidate for president in 2007. Imagine a relationship—they never officially married—in which both partners want to be president of France? Ségo lost to Sarko in 2007. During that election it turned out that life-partner Hollande was “campaigning” with a Madame de Pompadour-like magazine journalist, who now might become the first official live-in girlfriend at the Élysée Palace.
Although France is not a country that bores easily on the subject of sex, when voters are looking for other electoral diversions (why dwell on recession, illegal immigrants, angry Arabs, or the Greek invoice?), the newspapers are ready with a host of tabloid scandals.
The mud sticking to the sides of Sarko’s Nixonian smile is his relationship with the rich heiress of the L’Oréal fortune, Liliane Bettencourt, who is suspected of having financed his 2007 campaign with envelopes that were stuffed from a Swiss bank account. Her bagman has been arrested, and the accountant is singing to the judges, but as a sitting president Sarkozy is immune from prosecution. Nor, until he leaves office, does he even have to answer questions about the bulging envelopes.
Were the Bettencourt scandal a Burgundy wine, the review notes on the shelf might read, “Lush hints of the Swiss alps, with just the right amount of perfume and hidden pleasure, yet classically French. Drink now or hold until the election.”
Because the socialists don’t want to go into pre-election prime-time sweeps without a scandal of their own, they can always rely on former party chief Dominque Strauss-Kahn, the excommunicated head of the International Monetary Fund, who on a slow day for news can be counted on to harass women, cavort with prostitutes, or land in jail, with each headline reminding the French that, save for the odd rape charge, he could well have been their next president.
The latest DSK charges involve call girls who provided pleasures at a Lille hotel, and whom, when the mood and cash were right, flew off to far-flung DSK soirées. There, the president-in-waiting together with some (socialist?) corporate donors would loosen their chains and unite with these workers. (Marx would have approved.)
In court, DSK’s lawyer claimed his client didn’t know the ladies were escorts because he only saw them in a natural state, when it’s harder to discern the “provenance” of the “goods,” which is how Strauss-Kahn referred to the women.
Alas, scandals are included in a French presidential election only for entertainment. Neither sacks of cash nor tales of sexual escapades will determine how people vote. The working classes, based in large cities, vote for the left. Agrarian, conservative France guards its pocketbook and votes for the right. Centrism isn’t a French concept.
Sarko’s chance is that he appeals to the middle right, a law-and-order president angry at Islam who has the backs of shopkeepers and farmers, all of whom are tired of strikes and lazy functionaries.
Hollande — if he makes it to the second round, where he could well beat Sarkozy — can point to an incumbent who is presiding over a stagnating economy with high unemployment. But Hollande’s sonorous campaign might make voters long for someone more passionate, even Sarko, who each day reminds the electorate of some new red scare.
Marine Le Pen, for her part, has made it clear that she would not put up with any more nonsense—not with rioting Algerians, not with bankrupt Greeks, not with German alliances.
Still, nonsense and naughtiness might be exactly what the French are looking for, and that raises this question: Are the French toast?
Photo: Nicolas Sarkozy at Davos, 2011; copyright World Economic Forum
Matthew Stevenson is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays, and recently edited Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper's Magazine. His next book is Whistle-Stopping America.