Mon Feb 5th, 2007 at 11:40:41 AM EST
Eleven polls in a row in favour of Nicolas Sarkozy are beginning to echo around and create worries on the left, not least here on ET. ManFromMiddletown looked at some of the polls, with graphs, in Trendspotting: French Presidential Race. The latest poll, by TNS Sofres yesterday, gave Sarkozy the victory in Round Two by 53% to 47% for Ségolène Royal.
So what's going on? Royal started well and won the primary within the Socialist Party (PS) convincingly. By positioning herself in the centre while Sarko was still playing his usual bad cop routine (attempting to round up far-right voters by stressing law and order issues), she stuck him out there on the right with an over-authoritarian image. To take a metaphor from tennis, she'd moved inside the baseline, mid-court, and was ideally placed to distribute the shots and keep Sarko on the stretch. Yet a sound-bite I heard yesterday (can't find a link but I think it was from Jean-François Kahn, ed-in-chief of political weekly Marianne) pictured Sarko belting down the shots like a tennis champ, while Royal, at the other end, looked like an amateur ping-pong player.
Yeah. Well, of course. She's a woman, and women have to be twice as good to look as if they're nearly as good. Those are the cultural distortion spectacles everyone wears, men and women, rich and poor, and that isn't going to change for the duration of the campaign (or for how much longer?), so one would hope Royal and her people have it branded into their frontal lobes. It is going to be hard, hard, hard - to start with, because it's harder for a female candidate in a macho political culture.
Another reason why it will be hard is that Sarko has the MSM with him. Not loudly, not Fox-News-style, but discreetly, in the choice of what memes to play and which to mute: how to create perceptions and fuel their growth. For some time the big news was all about Ségolène making silly mistakes. She said "bravitude"! Ha-ha-ha! Can you imagine a president who says "bravitude"? When a much more substantial story came out about the political police (under Sarko's orders at the Interior Ministry) investigating a former Greenpeace leader who joined Royal's campaign staff, TF1, the country's dominant TV channel (owned by Sarko's buddy Martin Bouygues) first didn't cover the story, then, when that became impossible because the story had legs, only offered evening news-watchers Sarko's off-hand denial.
So Sarkozy has been able to run, with more ease than democracy should strictly contemplate, his answer to Royal's central positioning: he's nothing but sweet reason and he's on the left. Chirac has done this before - be identified with authoritarianism and anti-immigrant feeling at one point, only to go all leftie populist when campaign time comes. Sarko has handed himself the endorsement of historic leaders of the French left like Jaurès and Blum; and he repeats that he wants to restore the values of travail, which (handily for him) is ambiguous in French, since it means both "work" and "labour". Understand: when Sarko says he's all in favour of travail, he sounds as if he means he's backing labour (against capital?), when in fact he means he's going to make people work harder (to capital's benefit...). He's appealing to individualistic feelings on the part of some employees who are ready to work all hours to earn more, while in fact he's simply relaying conventional wisdom about France's supposed problems stemming from the French not working hard enough. What's worrying is how easily he's getting away with it.
It's true he acts the change from attack dog to fluffy pooch with conviction, and his campaign is well-organized around the act. He has hard-hitting surrogates doing the fighting while he plays Mr Nice Guy. Ségolène too, is playing an angel (she was much photo'd with a lamb in her arms somewhere in regional France, y'know...), but she hasn't got the gritty surrogates. They've been missing for too long. The Sarko mob have had two or three open weeks to fire at will, and it's done damage. Sarko, who is an official candidate, is head of the right's biggest party, Interior Minister, and government Number Two. He should be paying a political price for wearing all those hats. Until the last week, no one has been extracting that price. It's as if the Royal campaign and the PS were simply unprepared for what was coming, even though it was very predictable. The right is campaigning as the right does. Get used to it and fight it.
Behind this is a PS that seems stuck in a time-warp. Mitterand ended his second mandate twelve years ago, but it's as if the Socialists haven't got over it yet, divided as they are (at least a good number of them) between pro- and anti-Mitterandists. Add to that the weight of the elephants and their personal scheming. It's perhaps not fair to make too much of this, but there's no doubt the party is not united and out there fighting for Royal, and it's about time it was. Sarko may have Chirac and Villepin against him, but he has the UMP, a party of comparable size to the PS, totally behind him. Talking of hard-hitting surrogates, the best defence of Royal/ attack on Sarko in weeks came, not from the PS, but from Jean-Pierre Chevènement, (renegade founder of a split-off movement), when he stated clearly that Sarkozy was the candidate of big, globalised, financial capitalism.
As usual, it's a problem of perception. Sarko, with the media's help, has - for the moment - successfully engineered a version of himself that is convincingly back in the centre, doesn't have to pay for the impopularity of the government he's been N° 2 of for five years, isn't seen as the representative of neo-lib "reform" or of Atlanticism, and that looks like a winner. Royal has slipped into the perception trap that makes her a facade with no substance, detached from unpleasant reality, and beginning a cliff-fall in the polls. The meme of a change of candidate has even got out there. Tell us again who the media are working for?
There is in fact no cliff-fall. Sarkozy too is falling. (In the TNS Sofres barometer I quote above, for the first round of the elections, Royal's high point was in November '06, at 34%, down to 26% in the latest poll; Sarko's high point was last October at 38%, down to 32% in this poll). But it's all about perception... And the perception is that it's Royal who's slipping... Just a bit more of this, it will become self-feeding.
Royal needs to stop this - in my view, by a campaign with more nitty-gritty realism, with some real backing from the Socialists, and with some substance. The substance is supposed to come next Sunday, 11th February, when her programme will be revealed. This programme is billed to be the result of long discussions with ordinary folks all over the country, an example of participative democracy. Sarko has a programme (pdf), brief, vague, and full of fine sentiments, brought out two weeks ago. I may have missed the action, but I haven't noticed the media jumping all over it. Royal must know every pundit, every "specialist" journalist, will be all over hers, and she will be asked to justify every last detail. So it matters a lot that this programme be up to it, that it should correspond to something that has come out of a long discussion with ordinary people, that - above all - it should not be too "angelic", ie full of well-meaning clap-trap that will not strike home. And that the Royal campaign be really ready to take it from there, having measured how hard it will be.
Because (pace Douglas Adams), it does matter which lizard gets in...
Sarkozy presents his new social workers